The economics of plants engineered to replace oil

Farm Forum

NDSU and Plant Sensory Systems, a Maryland-based agricultural biotechnology company, has started researching the biological, economic and environmental benefits of the Nitrogen Use Efficient and Stress Tolerant Crops (NUEST) technology in energy beets.

Energy beets are varieties of cultivated beets bred to maximize total sugar per acre, compared with sugar beets that were developed to maximize sucrose and minimize the presence of impurities. As a new industrial crop, energy beets are expected to help meet the need for renewable feedstocks to replace high-cost fossil fuels.

The NUEST technology dramatically increases plant biomass, sugar content, and nitrogen and water use efficiency. The technology holds promise for improving the profitability of energy beet-based industrial sugars by reducing energy beet production costs and increasing their value. The environmental benefits can be monetized because of federal and state renewable fuel policies.

The research is sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an agency modeled after the Department of Defense’s DARPA-E program that laid the groundwork for many innovations such as the Internet and GPS.

I lead NDSU’s team that is charged with conducting the economic and environmental analyses. While our research is quite applied, it gets at the heart of economics, which are tradeoffs. Changes in per-acre tonnage and sugar, as well as varying responses to inputs, especially nitrogen fertilizer, echo across the supply chain. They impact farmers’ decisions to produce the crop, such as prices that farmers are willing to accept and biorefineries are willing to pay, and the price of the resulting industrial sugar that can be used to produce biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials.

The project includes the development of a technology-to-market plan that evaluates the economics of energy beet production and conversion to ethanol. Ethanol is used as a baseline for comparison, although it is likely that energy beets-based industrial sugar also will be used for other higher-value uses. The plan will consider the competiveness of energy beet production against other crops by using traditional crop budgets and against other ethanol pathways by designing and optimizing regional energy beet ethanol systems.

The ARPA-E project is national in scope and considers production in the northern Plains, plus the West and South, where different beet production and storage practices are expected to be used. In the northern Plains, production is expected to be similar to that used by the sugar beet industry, which is a fall harvest and outdoor storage that is aided by cold weather. In the West, irrigation and a continual harvest is planned. In the South, energy beets will be a winter crop.

The estimation of environmental impacts is a fundamental component of analyzing the feasibility of new crops and renewable products. This is done by conducting a life cycle assessment (LCA). A LCA tracks equipment and processes used and energy consumed to estimate greenhouse gas emissions. These estimates are compared with other, often petroleum-based, products. Feedstocks with smaller footprints are preferred and, in some cases, are critical. The same holds true with biofuels, where a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to gasoline is required for approval by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Life cycle assessments also are helpful in conducting economic modeling because they require a high level of precision. Furthermore, the resulting estimates of physical greenhouse gas emissions can be priced by allowing for a comparison of the economic costs of alternative products. In the case of energy beets using the NUEST technology, reductions in nitrogen fertilizer, which has a large carbon footprint, or yield increases would significantly improve its LCA.

The project builds upon and complements ongoing activities in North Dakota, which is at the forefront of North American energy beet development. These activities have received support from North Dakota’s Renewable Energy Program, the Agricultural Products Utilization Committee and 12 local communities. Private partners include Betaseed, Syngenta, Green Vision Group and Heartland Renewable Energy.

This summer, there will be 14 trials of energy beet varieties under dryland and irrigated conditions across the state.