The Minnesota ethanol industry is evolving even in the face of growth challenges including continued uncertainty around the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Since 2007 the industry has improved by leaps and bounds in terms of technological advancements, energy efficiency and sustainability.
“Minnesota ethanol producers are continually evolving with respect to the use of technology and processes to decrease the inputs of energy and water while increasing their output of ethanol and co-products such as DDGs and corn oil,” explains Tim Rudnicki, executive director of the Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association.
According to a 2011 report from the Argonne National Laboratory, ethanol producers have cut water use in half within a 10-year period. In fact, Rudnicki notes that some producers are using less than two gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. When comparing water use with the production of oil, depending on where the oil is extracted, oil production can require more than seven times that much water to produce one gallon of gas. Other ways ethanol producers are infusing sustainability within water use is by using storm water and treated municipal wastewater.
Specifically, the Al-Corn Clean Fuel ethanol plant has completely eliminated any process water discharge. Randall Doyal CEO of the Claremont, Minnesota-based plant says, “This cut our water consumption down to just over two gallons per gallon of ethanol. The water that is used is for cooling and is evaporated, so it returns to the atmosphere to recycle back as rain. We continually recover water in the process to reuse again and again.”
In other terms of sustainability, biofuels also offer a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). When using Argonne’s Wells to Wheels methodology, total lifecycle GHG reductions for corn-based ethanol equates to a 57 percent reduction in GHS emissions when compared to petroleum.
“Biofuel producers are decreasing their inputs, increasing the outputs and providing consumers with a lower carbon renewable fuel that helps to reduce GHG emissions,” says Rudnicki.
Energy efficiency is also an area that has seen great improvements over the past few years. Doyal highlights the ingenuity of the ethanol industry when developing solutions to improve aspects of production.
“The ethanol industry has always been made up of people who constantly challenge the norm and try to find better ways to do things,” Doyal explains. This is very evident in how much we have seen energy consumption drop over the years. Our plant in Claremont was constructed in 1996 and over our history we have reduced both our natural gas and electricity consumption by over a third. Our results are fairly consistent with the industry as a whole. We have added thermal oxidation to reduce emissions from our feed drying process, and have integrated that into our operations to gain greater efficiency.”
Doyal says his plant, like many others have added distillers’ corn oil recovery, adding a new and valuable product line to their list of co-products. His team continually reviews new technologies to determine if they can further enhance efficiencies or add a new co-product.
His plant makes use of the advances in enzyme technologies and his team is always trying to push their yield of ethanol per bushel. “All of these adaptations provide our industry with greater sustainability,” stresses Doyal. “Couple this with the vast improvements in corn farming technologies and you can see how great the gains actually are. Farmers in our area are accustomed to achieving 200 bushels per acre or more, with lower inputs and chemicals while using more sustainable farming techniques. The impact of farm equipment technology in reducing fuel consumption while also reducing seed, chemical and fertilizer inputs pushes the efficiency even higher.”
On Monday we’ll hear from Doyal and Rudnicki on the what the next five years might bring for renewable fuels in Minnesota.