Fresno Beet Energy plant to break ground

Fresno County’s beet crop could see a resurgence due to an ethanol pilot project.  Fresno County’s beet crop could see a resurgence due to an ethanol pilot project. The Fresno County Planning Commission will meet Sept. 13 to consider its approval on construction plans for a pilot “Beet Energy” plant near Five Points.


If approved, the long-awaited project will break ground in October and will be up and running by June, said proponent and area farmer John Diener.

"We’re going to do it," said Diener, who will house the pilot facility on his Red Rock Ranch where the test plot of beets will be grown.

Sugar beets — once a major crop in Fresno County — are no longer grown for sugar here because there is no local processing plant. Now, the California Energy Commission (CEC) is eager to explore ways to produce low-carbon motor fuels from plants.

The project is waiting to hear back on a CEC grant the would fund the pilot facility that could lead to a much-larger $200 million privately-funded biofuel production plant in Mendota.

In the planning stage since 2009, the integrated project includes the Mendota Advanced Bioenergy Beet Cooperative, which together with Diener are hoping for $5 million from the CEC to build the model plant expected to produce 1 million gallons of ethanol processed from 250 acres of energy beets.

The beets — larger than common sugar beet — would be harvested year-round.  The project had already received a $1.5 million matching grant to examine the feasibility of the idea.

Sugar beets that once covered more than 300,000 acres statewide have now dwindled to 70,000 acres, all in Imperial County. The Central Valley once had 100,000 acres of sugar beets before the Spreckels Sugar plant in Mendota closed its doors in 2008 after a 100-year run, leaving farmers high and dry.

But now, a number of former Spreckels growers — members of the beet cooperative — hope the crop makes a comeback and bolsters the growing number of plant materials harvested for low-carbon fuels.

Beet Energy’s project consultant Jim Tischer of Fresno State said the benefits of turning beets into biofuel are attractive. “We’re talking about a much higher [heat] content with three times the ethanol production per acre compared to corn," Tischer said. 

The integration that helps make the fuel “greener” includes four different technologies in one facility to produce ethanol, renewable biomethane, compost and fertilizer, and green electricity. The primary feedstocks will be sugar beets and almond orchard prunings. This integrated biorefinery combines the following renewable technologies: advanced ethanol production, anaerobic digestion, biomass gasification, water recycling and wastewater treatment.

If  the pilot proves successful Tischer said investors and lenders are in the wings who could be eager to build the full-scale production plant that would covert both ag waste and beets into ethanol and other fuel, green electricity and other green products.

The full-scale plant, to be built in Mendota by 2016, would convert 840,000 tons of beets and 80,000 tons of almond clippings each year into 33.5 million gallons of ethanol; 1.6 million standard cubic feet of biomethane for making compressed natural gas; 6.3 megawatts of certified green electricity and high-nutrient compost and liquid fertilizer.

For wastewater treatment, the processes could add 400 acre-feet of treated water for crop irrigation.

The project could create approximately 250 direct and 50 indirect construction jobs in the Fresno County agricultural community of Mendota, along with 50 long-term jobs at the biorefinery and an additional 50 jobs for feedstock operations.

“We estimate that the plant would mean about $110 million a year in economic activity to the area," Tischer said.

A key factor in the feasibility is whether the plan to grow beets year-round on 35,000 acres within a 60-mile radius of Mendota works out. “Our pilot project should determine if we can prove out year-round harvest," Diener said. To compete with corn that can be stored, beet growers contracted with the plant would need to keep feeding the plant with about 4000 tons a day. Winter months are typically when beets grow in the Valley. Beets grown too far away would face high transportation costs making the facility less efficient.

The beets that will be used in the pilot refinery have been planted. The whole beet plant can be processed.

California is not the only place where the experiments with beets for biofuel are going forward. A mothballed corn ethanol plant in North Dakota is being converted this year to accept 12,000 acres of beets near Fargo.