Any time you chat with an ethanol guy you start by chatting numbers. So an October visit with Steve Christensen, CEO of Granite Falls Energy Company (just after he finished leading a group of Middle East and African government officials on a walking tour of his corn plant) my first question: “Steve, we’ve been walking and listening to you for about an hour now. Just how big is the Granite Falls ethanol factory?”
Christensen knows he’s answered that question thousands of times. “We’ll buy about 22 million bushels of corn a year — mostly within a 100-mile radius of our plant,” he said. “We get just a little less than three gallons per bushel, so we’ll make somewhere around 65 million gallons of ethanol per year.”
A covey of railroad tracks surround the Granite Falls plant, providing rail transport directly into east coast and Houston, Texas shipping terminals. “I don’t know all the destinations of our ethanol; but I do know both Europe and Asian countries have become big buyers of U.S. ethanol. Mexico and Canada are also into our ethanol market,” Christensen said.
Granit Falls Ethanol is now 15 years old. It was the flagship plant for Granite Falls entrepreneur Ron Fagen. During the 15-year explosion of new ethanol plants (1980-1995) across the corn belt, the Fagen name got attached to about 80 percent of these new facilities.
“We’re a 24/7 operation with only two four-day shut downs during the year. In essence, we’re on the job 357 days out of the year,” said Christenesen.
Yes, any factory with the amazing amount of equipment that makes an ethanol plant do its thing does need to redo a few bottlenecks which creep into the daily buzz of its 24-hour operation. “Basically, it’s the same footprint,” Christensen explained. “We did add two grain bins and increased our cooling capacity. But credit goes to my guys who have just done a great job of ‘de-bottlenecking’ the bottlenecks that simply happen.” He added, “Right now we’re not looking at any needs, but technologies keep cranking out new ideas.”
Corn distillers dried grain is the other huge product of this facility. “I believe we’re doing about 140,000 tons a year and some of that also gets into foreign markets. Also, into the northwest states where dairy cows abound. Feed markets into Mexico are another market; but the bulk of CDDG gets used by cattle feeders and major dairy operations around the U.S.”
This corn distiller dried grain is a power-packed feedstuff too. The label Christensen showed me reads: “Crude Protein, Min 25%; Crude Fat, Min 6.0%; Crude Fiber, Max 9.5%, Ash Max 6%; Sulfur Max 1.0%; Moisture Max 12%.”
There’s no such thing as wasted material at a corn ethanol plant. Distillers corn oil and ethanol are the bread and butter. Even water used at the site gets filtered and pumped back into the process for another go-around.
So what’s ahead? “Enzyme technology is coming on strong,” Christensen admitted. “The enzyme companies continue to come up with new and better enzymes which might increase our overall efficiency … we won’t need to add as many things to the process.”
So do any corn producers bring organic corn to the plant? “Not that we know of,” replied Christensen, adding “… we buy blended corn direct from elevators and/or farmer producers. So if it was organic corn we wouldn’t know. Plus, I’d guess most organic corns are going to higher-dollar markets that pay that premium price anyway.”
It takes only 40 employees to operate this huge facility. And the working crews are on 12-hour shifts (four 12-hour days/week). Plus a daily maintenance crew of six. “We have a really good preventive maintenance program, plus we have a large inventory of parts,” Christensen stated. “We can usually fix whatever happens really quick. Then, twice a year, we shut down for four days to do preventive maintenance that we can’t when the plant is running. Basically, an ethanol plant will run 357 days of the year.”
This plant still operates with its 15-year-old original boilers. Natural gas is the energy provider. “Our goal is to do the very best maintenance so we simply don’t have equipment failures that shut us down,” Christensen said.