Along with North Dakota, energy beets also are receiving close attention in several other states — and especially in the Central Valley of California. There, the research and development catalyst has been Mendota Bioenergy LLC, a group comprised of former Spreckels Sugar Company growers from Fresno County. Also working on the project are various university water/energy/ biomass specialists and several companies with experience in biofuels engineering and development.
The Mendota biorefinery effort got rolling in 2008 after Spreckels Sugar (owned by Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op) announced its beet factory there would be closed. Area growers initially looked into the possibility of buying the factory and continuing to grow and process beets for sugar, but decided that was not feasible. As an alternative, the newly formed Mendota Advanced Bioenergy Beet Cooperative began investigating whether energy beets could have a future in Fresno County. John Diener, a longtime sugarbeet grower from Five Points, was the cooperative’s founding president. Jim Tischer of the California Water Institute at Cal State-Fresno serves as project coordinator. Former Spreckels employees and other consultants also are involved with the project.
The co-op applied for and received a $72,000 USDA value-added product grant for an initial feasibility study, which was completed in mid-2009. Then, in 2010, the Mendota group applied for and was awarded a $1.5 million competitive matching grant from the California Energy Commission to further examine the viability of processing sugarbeets, as well as farm waste products (e.g., almond orchard prunings), for fuel and energy.
The goal is to build a biorefinery that will utilize between 840,000 to one million-plus tons of locally grown sugarbeets each year, along with another 80,000 tons of almond prunings and other agricultural waste. From those feedstocks, Mendota Bioenergy expects to produce 33.5 million gallons of advanced ethanol, 6.3 megawatts of certified green electricity, 1.6 million/million cubic feet of renewable biomethane, and high-nutrient compost and liquid fertilizer. The biorefinery also is expected to reclaim one million gallons of treated water per day, which in turn will be used for the facility’s operations.
“Work on the $1.5 million matching grant began [in] April 2011 and is scheduled to be completed in January 2013,” Tischer notes. This current phase includes exploring the project’s technical feasibility, economic viability and environmental impacts. Specific areas of exploration include the assessment of feedstock material properties, development of integrated biomass processing and conversion technologies, pilot-scale digester operations, and analyzing life-cycle environmental impacts and sustainability. Other work will focus on economic areas, such as a production sales and distribution plan, agreements for the use of the renewable energy, low-carbon and water-wise products, and the establishment of a Best Management Practices program framework for beet growers and others providing feedstocks to the biorefinery.
If the project still appears feasible upon completion of the above work, full development, financing and construction on the $200 million Mendota biorefinery would then proceed. “If not, we’ll all go back to our ‘day jobs,’ ” Tischer says. “In an ‘ideal world,’ we would proceed with full development in 2013 and construction and startup in 2014. Construction is not, however, pre-ordained in today’s problematic project finance environment.” — Don Lilleboe