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Sweeter ethanol can skip subsidy

Published on January 7, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on February 4, 2011 8:19AM


Groups in several different states are studying the feasibility of distilling ethanol from sugar beets.

A group in North Dakota recently announced plans for a sugar ethanol demonstration plant that it hopes to have in operation by early 2012.

The California Energy Commission on Dec. 1 approved a $1.5 million grant to Mendota Bioenergy LLC to test the feasibility of converting sugar beets and other agricultural waste into ethanol.

If feasible, the project could convert 840,000 tons of sugar beets and 80,000 tons of farm biowaste each year into 33.5 million gallons of ethanol, the commission said in a press release.

The plan has a lot of merit. To make ethanol from corn, distillers must first turn corn starches into sugars. That's an energy-intensive step in the process. If you use sugar beets, or sugar cane, you begin with the necessary sugar, and eliminate a costly step.

Researchers are developing sugar beet varieties suited to ethanol production. Energy beets can contain more impurities than food-grade sugar beets, allowing breeders to focus on yield.

Advocates say production of ethanol beets wouldn't compete with the growing of beets for sugar. And unlike corn, using beets for distillation wouldn't drive up the price of livestock feed. Raising beets for ethanol feedstock would give farmers another potentially profitable crop.

We like the plan, up to the point where supporters seek subsidies from the Environmental Protection Agency for the production and blending of the fuel. There are already too many products, farm commodities included, that have become dependent on government subsidies for viability. It's particularly true of alternative energy schemes.

The problem with these subsidies is that they add a second tier of volatility to an already volatile market. Farmers not only would have to follow the price of beets but would also have to keep an eye on the political popularity of the subsidies. If production is based on a subsidy, when the subsidy goes away so does the market for the energy sugar beets.

Midwestern corn growers have multiple competing markets for their crop, but farmers who decide to grow sugar beets for ethanol distillation won't have that luxury.

If beet ethanol doesn't pencil out without the federal subsidy, it's really not viable.


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