FIVE POINTS, Calif. (AP) — Amid the vast almond orchards and grape fields that surround Five Points in California's Central Valley, a once-dominant crop that has nearly disappeared from the state's farms is making a comeback: sugar beets.
But these beets won't be processed into sugar. A dozen farmers, supported by university experts and a $5 million state grant, are set to start construction of a Fresno County demonstration plant that will convert the beets into ethanol.
If the demo project in Five Points succeeds, the farmers will build the nation's first commercial-scale bio-refinery in nearby Mendota to turn beets into biofuel. Europe already has more than a dozen such plants, but most ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn.
California energy officials say the beet plant is an example of expanding state investment in biofuel production and an innovative way to achieve the state's goal of increasing alternative fuel use over the next decade.
"We're trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to shift our transportation fuels to a lower carbon content," said Robert Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission, which awarded the grant. "The beets have the potential to provide that."
The farmers say so-called energy beets can deliver ethanol yields more than twice those of corn per acre. That's because beets have a higher sugar content per ton than corn. And, the farmers say, the bio-refinery would bring jobs and investment to an area that's dealing with water pumping restrictions and overly salty soils.
"This project is about rural development. It's about bringing a better tax base to this area and bringing jobs for the people," said John Diener, a grower who farms about 5,000 acres of diverse crops in Five Points and whose ranch will house the demonstration plant.
Driven by a federal mandate to reduce dependence on foreign oil, America's ethanol industry has boomed over the past decade. Plants in 28 states now produce more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol each year, according to Geoff Cooper, vice president for research and analysis for the Renewable Fuels Association. Today, nearly all the gasoline sold in the U.S. contains the biofuel, generally at the 10 percent level.
About 95 percent of U.S. ethanol is made from corn, Cooper said. But that percentage could soon change because the Renewable Fuel Standard, established by Congress in 2005 and later expanded, caps the amount of ethanol produced from corn at 15 billion gallons.
Dozens of non-corn ethanol plants are now being developed and constructed throughout the country, experts say. Other California projects involve producing biofuels from food processing wastes, remains from field crops and manure from the dairy and poultry industries. Across the U.S., plants are looking at converting wheat straw, municipal waste and wood pulp into biofuel.
In central California, the bio-refinery would resurrect a crop that has nearly vanished. The birthplace of the sugar beet industry, California once grew over 330,000 acres of the gnarly root vegetable, with 11 sugar mills processing the beets. But as sugar prices collapsed, the mills shut down. Only one remains in the Imperial Valley.