Farmers Research Beet-Based Biofuel

Grant gives researchers $5 million to make beets into ethanol
Wikimedia/Jeremy Keith

Sugar beets used to be one of California's dominant crops until they fell out of popularity and nearly disappeared in that state, but if a group of farmers has their way the root vegetable will be making a comeback as biofuel.

According to ABC News, a group of 12 farmers in Five Points, Calif., has been given a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission to build a demonstration plant that converts sugar beets into ethanol.

"We're trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to shift our transportation fuels to a lower carbon content," said Robert Weisenmiller of the California Energy Commission. "The beets have the potential to provide that."

Nearly all gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol, usually at about 10 percent. Currently about 95 percent of ethanol made in the US comes from corn. But the amount ethanol produced from corn is capped at 15 billion gallons, which means other sources are in high demand. Beets have more sugar than corn, which the farmers say means beets can generate twice as much ethanol per acre.

The Five Points demo plant is expected to turn 250 acres of beets into 285,000 gallons of ethanol per year.

If the project is successful, the group intends to open a commercial-scale beet ethanol refinery in Mendota, Calif., that could produce 40 million gallons of ethanol every year. The refinery is planned to open in 2016 and the farmers estimate that it could put 80 beet growers back into production and create 100 long-term jobs and 150 seasonal jobs.

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"This project is about rural development. It's about bringing a better tax base to this area and bringing jobs for the people," said grower John Diener, whose ranch will host the new demonstration plant.