Red River Valley research eyes turning sugar beets into ethanol

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Researchers in the Red River Valley say if studies continue to go well the region's first plant turning sugar beets into ethanol could open in a couple of years.

The president of Green Vision Group tells AgWeek he's optimistic that once the research is done, the financial situation will look good. Maynard Helgaas of West Fargo says a key study of the best way to store and process the beets is just getting started under the leadership of a North Dakota State University faculty member.

He says a commercial plant is projected to cost as much as $65 million.

Currently almost all of the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn. But plans for the nation's first sugar beet-to-ethanol plant were recently announced in California's central valley. A small experimental plant is in the works there but if things go well a commercial plant could open in 2016.

Making ethanol from sugar is already the norm in Brazil and is becoming more common in Europe. The USDA says making the fuel from sugar is technologically simpler and uses half as much energy as making it from corn.

Ethanol plants that rely on corn struggled last summer, and several closed as the Midwestern drought made corn scarce and expensive. Owners of a plant in Fairmont told MPR Wednesday they may sell the facility.

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August 14th is the earliest start date on record for the preliminary sugar harvest, known as the "pre-pile" harvest. It usually starts in September. American Crystal Sugar reports this year's crop was in the ground early and looks like it'll be bigger than usual. The main harvest - the stockpile - will likely start at its customary time in October.