Member Profile: ND Ethanol Council
Posted on February 1, 2022
The North Dakota Ethanol Council (NDEC) has been active since 2009 when the ND State Legislature established it to promote ethanol in the state. A total of six plants are active across ND, including Blue Flint Ethanol, Dakota Spirit AgEnergy, Hankinson Renewable Energy, Red River Biorefinery, Red Trail Energy, LLC, and Tharaldson Ethanol Plant. As a relatively new industry in ND, the council promotes ethanol research, education, and market development across the state. Deana Wiese, the NDEC's Executive Director, Jeff Zueger, NDEC Chairman and Chairman for Blue Flint, and Dakota Spirit AgEnergy, and Keshav Rajpal of Red River Commodities all took some time to talk more about the ethanol industry in ND.
Zueger explains that he and his team had their eyes on ND as a primary location to build an ethanol plant back in the early 2000s, as regulations regarding clean and renewable standards were taking hold across the US. "The business culture and legislation were ripe with opportunity, and so many people were willing to help," says Zueger as Blue Flint was coming to fruition in Underwood, ND.
Another integral piece to stabilizing the ethanol industry in ND was the advancements in corn genetics which allowed for an 82-day growing period and hybrid corn well suited for ethanol production. "Growing corn with genetics that worked well in North Dakota essential, so once that happened, we knew would be a game-changer. We believed the corn varieties would come, and they did." described Zeuger.
Wiese emphasized the economic impact of corn growth across the state has been not only significant for the ethanol plants, but also the agriculture industry. "Five out of the six ethanol plants were built in small towns they reap the jobs and tax benefits. It also increases the quality of life for those communities," she says. Wiese goes on to explain additional benefits, like new schools being built in Richardson and Casselton. By having so much ethanol production in the state, many North Dakotans may not even realize that they enjoy lower-cost fuel with added ethanol, but it is an added benefit, says Wiese.
Most of ND ethanol is produced from corn, and anywhere from 40-60% of corn grown in ND goes towards ethanol production. The ethanol plants use more than 140 million bushels of corn each year, and 80% of that corn is grown in ND. In addition, Red River Biofuels in Grand Forks, ND, creates advanced ethanol from waste, including remnants from potato and sugar beet production. "We've been able to monetize waste into a usable commodity," says Rajpal. This plant also produces ethanol, but because it uses waste, it has a lower carbon output than other ethanol products. This edge has been vital for opportunities in export markets requiring lower carbon footprints.
Only about 10% of the ethanol produced in the state stays in ND. The rest is shipped by rail across state lines, either inside the US, or to Canada. There is an increasing ability for some of the low carbon ethanol to qualify under EU regulations, and the export of ND ethanol is fast approaching. "It's a lengthy process," says Rajpal, "but it allows us to access many new markets and arbitrage of new potential markets" Some of the best advice he has for exporters is to use your resources, take advantage of trade missions, and visit with international delegations to make new contacts. "The NDTO and the STEP (State Trade Expansion Program) program were very helpful for us, and we have several opportunities brewing as a result of these activities," says Rajpal. There are many applications for ethanol for the future, and ND plants are continuing to innovate and utilize ethanol and its byproducts in a variety of ways.
Distillers grain is a byproduct of ethanol production and is increasingly used by livestock producers for animal feed. The distiller's grain is high in protein and a good source of energy for cattle, dairy cows, swine, and some poultry. Tharaldson Ethanol announced in December 2021 a new feed facility to harness distillers grains and open a variety of new opportunities. The feed is primarily geared toward pet foods and aquaculture feed uses with high protein needs.
Another venture for the ethanol plants in ND is CO2 storage. The geology of ND is well suited for underground storage of CO2, another byproduct of ethanol production. The intent is to lessen the amount of CO2 released into the air as a result of ethanol production. The CO2 can remain in the ground indefinitely and would lower the carbon footprint of the plants. Currently, projects are underway for Blue Flint and Red Trail Energy, where C02 injections appear to be feasible.
As Wiese and Zueger reflect on the ND ethanol industry as a whole, innovation and ingenuity stick out as the driving forces behind the successful ethanol industry in the state. "North Dakota was doing ethanol before it was cool," explains Wiese, "the companies in North Dakota were able to move so quickly into the area because they had been exploring ethanol for some time. This group is always looking for new ways to optimize their assets." As they look to the future of the industry, Zueger says, "ethanol is what we are producing today. We will continue to progress, that ethanol molecule will move into other applications and other markets, and we will be ready for more than just transportation fuels."
As an environmentally friendly fuel, ethanol is being explored for a whole host of applications, and with the strong foundations the ND Ethanol Council has laid so far, ND will not be left behind in this innovative field. Rather, it will be leading it.