Former sugar beet growers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley are expected to learn next month whether they’ll be able to take the next step in an ambitious plan to return beets to the valley’s row crop mix to supply a $200 million biorefinery near Mendota, Calif.

Mendota Advanced Bioenergy Beet Cooperative and Mendota Energy, LLC are expected to find out in May whether the California Energy Commission will award the two groups $5 million to develop a pilot biorefiney capable of producing 1 million gallons of ethanol from 250 acres of beets harvested year-round within a 60-mile radius of the plant near Mendota.

If the 1/40 scale plant proves successful, the two groups, made up mostly of Spreckels sugar beet growers, would begin construction on a full scale plant to accept the first beets in June 2016 that could produce as much as 36 million gallons of ethanol in a year from 35,000 acres of beets.

The leadership of these groups held a series of meetings in communities surrounding Mendota recently to update growers on the progress of the project that started in 2008, when Spreckels Sugar (owned by Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op) announced it would close the beet factory in Mendota after more than 40 years of operation.

That left just one beet plant operating in the state. It is in Imperial Valley where 25,000 acres are grown. At one time there were 11 sugar mills and 330,000 acres of beets in California, which is the birthplace of the industry in the U.S. America’s first sugar mill was established in 1870 at Union City, Calif., in Alameda County.

When Southern Minnesota announced the closure of the Mendota plant, growers who delivered beets there tried to buy or lease the facility. That did not work out, but the growers were not deterred.

“We looked at the situation and said do we want to grow beets for sugar or ethanol. Ethanol made better sense,” said John Diener, Five Points, Calif., producer and one of the leaders of the current effort. The group plans to develop the beets-to-ethanol plant just east of the Mendota airport.

The group initially received a $72,000 USDA value-added product grant for a feasibility study. That was completed in 2009. The next year the group was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission to further examine the viability of processing sugar beets, as well as farm waste products for fuel and energy.

Wood byproduct fuel

Jim Tischer of the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno serves as project coordinator.

Working with energy crop experts from the University of California, Davis and bioenergy specialists in the U.S., Germany and Switzerland, the group determined a pilot plant was feasible and applied to the California Energy Commission to build it.

The idea of utilizing beets for biofuel is not new, but the approach taken by the Mendota energy cartel is.

One of the biggest drawbacks in getting ethanol from beets is the energy cost. The Mendota biorefinery process will generate as much as 50 percent of its energy from wood byproducts.

“There are 100,000 acres of almonds alone within 30 miles of the plant site,” said Diener. These woody byproducts, an estimated 80,000 tons of almond prunings and other agricultural waste, would be fed into a biomass gassifer cogeneration plant to generate power and heat.

Along with the ethanol, Mendota Bioenergy expects to produce 6.3 megawatts of certified green electricity, 1.6 million cubic feet of renewable biomethane, and high-nutrient non-synthetic compost and liquid fertilizer.

With fresh water for irrigating, and city dwellers growing more scarce in the valley, the Mendota project will get its water from urban and ag wastewater.

The plant’s green biogas would be sold into the commercial utility market. The natural gas would fuel trucks and pumps. Waste water from the plant will be used on farms and in parks and landscaping. The fertilizer production component would be 10-10-10 fertilizer from anaerobic digesters.

The plant also will produce biodiesel from high-yield, salt-tolerant canola.

The goal is to build a biorefinery that will utilize between 840,000 to 1 million-plus tons of sugar beets annually within a 60-mile radius of the plant each year.

The beet feedstock for the plant are called energy beets, not sugar beets. “You have to forget about the sugar like we did when we grew beets for the sugar market,” said farmer Rusty Gragnani. Energy beets are larger and are likely to produce 50 to 60 tons per acre versus the more typical 40 tons when beets are produced for sugar only.

Diener said part of the yield increase would come from growers not being asked to trim the beets before delivering them as they did for sugar production. He said the bioenergy plant will use everything delivered from the field.

Cellulosic energy beets will produce up to 1,200 gallons of ethanol per acre compared to approximately 450 gallons per acre from corn-based ethanol. Biorefineries in Germany and France have been producing ethanol from energy beets for several years. There are at least three other locations in the U.S. where farmers and others are looking to do what the Central Valley group is attempting.

Bill Pucheu , Tranquillity, Calif., farmer and cooperative board chairman, said growers would earn $40 to $60 per ton for the beets delivered to the full scale plant that, under the current time table, would be operational in June 2016.

Beet supply pipeline

The cooperative would harvest and haul the beets from growers within the 60-mile radius of the plant. “Growers would be finished with the beets after the last irrigation. There would be no deduct for harvesting and hauling from the price,” he said. All growers, he added, would be treated the same, regardless of the distance from the Mendota plant.

The fully operational plant will require 4,000 tons of beets per day year-round to run efficiently.

The beet supply pipeline would be operated like a cooperative where growers would likely receive 80 percent of the field price upon delivery and the remainder in progress payments through the year. Mendota Bioenergy LLC would be the financing entity to obtaining financing to build the full-scale plant.

“We are estimating growers would receive $2,000 per acre gross,” Pucheu said.

Pucheu quickly points out that this beet deal will only work for row crop producers with inexpensive irrigation water supplies. Sugar beets work well in rotation with crops like alfalfa and cotton. That’s why row crop growers want beets to return.

Supplying beets year around will be a challenge, Pucheu acknowledges.

“We know it can be done for seven months because we have all done it. We think we can supply beets the other five months,” said Pucheu. The group will be looking for more sandy soils to grow beets those other five months.

The 250 acres to be planted for the pilot plant will be spread over the 60-mile radius with the goal of harvesting beets the first week of each month to supply the pilot plant.

If the energy commission awards the $5 million grant, the first grower contracted beets will go into the ground in June 2012 to be delivered to the facility about a year later, when the pilot plant is operational in about June 2013.

Goals beyond ethanol

Pucheu, in outlining the timeline for the project to reach the ultimate goal of a massive bioenergy operation by 2016, called it a “perfect world view.”

As the project moves forward, the leadership of this effort will be asking for non-binding grower commitments for the 35,000 acres needed for the commercial plant. Board members of the fledgling cooperative have already pledged 8,000 acres.

The goals of this ambitious, one of a kind project extend far beyond simply making ethanol. It involves such issues as AB 32, the California greenhouse gas initiatives, air and water quality regulations and things like carbon credits.

Farmers are showing up more on the regulatory radar, says Diener, and that is one reason the leadership group is asking growers how much fuel they use on their farms every year. One of the goals of the Mendota plant is to supply fuel to farmers from a nearby renewable fuel bioenergy plant.

The ability to produce fuel in close proximity to where it is used on the farm “could be huge in the future,” says Diener.

Diener said air and water quality regulators are “coming to look at us. They are getting more and more interested in what we are doing on our farms,” under new and onerous air and water quality regulations. Something like the bioenergy plant would provide the compensating balances needed to stay in farming.

“We better get in the boat and start rowing with them (regulators) rather than fight them and get sunk,” says Diener.

hcline@farmpress.com