Energy beets for the future of Kentucky farms and fuel


Add “energy beets” to the cash crop list for Kentucky farmers. The high-sugar energy beet, a variety bred to serve the fuel/energy market, is now growing on test plots in Whitley and other Kentucky counties. Kentucky-based Patriot Bio-Energy Corporation plans to use them to boost agriculture and help bring U.S. independence from foreign oil. Patriot’s vision also aims to bring biomass to electricity generation.

However, the first target for the company, which has offices in Pikeville, Lexington and Williamsburg, is the ethanol market.

Currently ethanol in the United States is mostly corn-based. Some industry analysts see beets as a good alternative. Holly Jessen, writing for Ethanol Producer Magazine (April 11), reported that “energy beets have the power to produce about double the amount of ethanol in one acre, when compared to corn,” according to one of the experts she interviewed.

Roger Ford, CEO of Patriot, said that the company’s system would rely on natural gas, as corn ethanol does, to drive the process — basically a distillery yielding alcohol from the sugar. He said that processing beets would use natural gas more efficiently than the corn process. The beets yield sugar directly, whereas corn requires an extra processing step to convert starch to sugar.

“We also plan to eventually control costs in operations by using biomass to provide power and heat for the plant operations,” said Ford, “which will enable us to have an avoided cost as we go forward.”

Greater ethanol use in the United States has been noted as a possible means for strengthening national security by breaking addiction to foreign oil, realizing economic advantages in international trade balance, and bringing prosperity to rural agricultural areas. Flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs), cars or trucks with engines that run on any mix of gasoline with up to 85 percent ethanol, can ride through turbulent oil prices with the high ethanol content, becoming more economically attractive as oil prices rise.

Automobile manufacturers have responded to the growing interest in flex-fuel vehicles. According to a spokesman with EthanolRetailer.com, there are currently more than 10 million FFVs on U.S. roads, based on 2011 figures of newly registered FFVs. EthanolRetailer also reports that the three major U.S. automobile manufacturers, Ford, GM and Chrysler, have committed to having 50 percent of their vehicles as FFVs by the end of 2012.

Toyota Manufacturing in Georgetown, Ky., in a statement to Business Lexington, said, “Toyota strongly supports the development of alternative fuels to help reduce dependence on foreign oil and potentially reduce vehicle emissions.” The company is gauging consumer interest with the Tundra and Sequoia, available as FFVs. They also noted that their hybrids, their core technology, in the future could be combined with any alternative fuel to maximize efficiency.

Of course, an issue facing flex-fuel vehicles is the availability of high ethanol fuel. A fuel mixture called E85 combines 85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline. According to figures at e85refueling.com, there are currently 2,466 E85 pump locations spread across 46 states. There are 19 gas stations located within 200 miles of Lexington offering e85. The Thornton’s at 2291 Elkhorn Drive is currently the only station in Lexington with an E85 pump.

Beyond ethanol, Patriot’s plans include the construction of biomass power plants, following sometime after the establishment of the ethanol-producing operations.

“We’re looking at 10- to 15-megawatt facilities,” Ford said. “We could go as small as 5 megawatts.”

Ford said in addition to running the ethanol production operations, electricity could be sold to utility companies. He said he’s been engaged in preliminary discussions with utilities.

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