ADAMS -- Corn prices are high and drought conditions have been troublesome, but the less-than-perfect scenario hasn’t slowed E Energy Adams.
The ethanol plant northwest of Adams is typically producing the fuel additive at full capacity, using roughly 60,000 bushels of corn to produce 165,000 gallons of ethanol each day.
To mark its success, the company recently had a celebration of five years since the first batch of ethanol was produced at the plant.
With high grain prices and a decreased supply thanks to the drought, multiple Nebraska ethanol plants have been forced to halt production.
Carl Sitzmann, CEO of E Energy Adams, explained how the plant has found success in a struggling market.
“We have had a strategy in the past few years of implementing profitability projects and our effective risk management has basically put us in the top 25 percent in the industry benchmarking,” Sitzmann explained. “We are one of the top performing companies in the industry. Because of that, in tough times other plants will have to shut down before us because their margin structure will go negative before ours.”
One key to E Energy Adams’ success has been finding uses for byproducts in ethanol production.
Sitzmann said the starch from corn is the only portion of the grain used to produce ethanol.
The rest of the corn and other plant byproducts are used in other food and ag-related industries.
Through the distillation process, ethanol is created as the main product. But plant manager Bob Toth explained during a walkthrough of the facility that byproducts are also put to good use.
“There’s ethanol being produced; that’s one thing that we get out,” Toth said. “The second thing is carbon dioxide and we have a company on our site that takes that CO2 from us and sells it as a gas for the carbonation in drinks and used in food plants.”
In addition to carbon dioxide, both dry and modified distillers grains are a major byproduct used by farmers as a high-protein source of food in cattle, hog and chicken industries.
The fourth byproduct of ethanol production is corn oil. Toth said not all ethanol plants have the capability to make use of corn oil - which is used in animal feed or biodiesel production -- but it has served E Energy as a significant source of revenue, bringing in as much as an additional $12,000-$15,000 per day.
The plant currently has 41 employees, a figure that’s remained generally steady in the past five years.
Ethanol manufactured by E Energy Adams isn’t consumer ready for vehicles when it leaves the plant, though there is a small amount of gasoline added at the plant.
Toth pointed out that ethanol, at 200 proof when it leaves the plant, is essentially corn whiskey. Alcohol for human consumption faces much different regulations, and so Sitzmann said two percent gasoline is added to the clear liquid to differentiate it from a beverage.
“We have to mix it with something that would make it undrinkable because there’s a lot different regulations for beverage-grade alcohol than fuel-grade alcohol,” Sitzmann said. “What we use for a denaturing is actually gasoline. Before it leaves our site we denature it with a couple percent of gasoline and then further blending done by others once it leaves here.”
Ethanol is not embraced by all.
Some question the benefits the corn fuel provides, but Sitzmann said there are three main pros to using ethanol that keep the fuel relevant in future markets, Octane, environmental friendliness and cost.
Typically at the pump, consumers see fuel ranging in octane levels of 87 up to 91 for premium grade.
In its pure form, ethanol is rated at 113 octane.
“There’s all kinds of power potential in ethanol,” Sitzmann said with a smile.
Matched with low emissions and a cost of around $2.30 per gallon for unblended ethanol, the corn product is frequently available in E-10 blends of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. E-15 is beginning to gain a presence, with two stations in the state selling the product for regular use in vehicles manufactured after 2001.
E-85 is also available for use in Flex Fuel vehicles, but Sitzmann said awareness and availability have hindered that market.
“There are more and more Flex-Fuel vehicles out there on the road, but a lot of people who drive these Flex-Fuel vehicles aren’t even aware of it,” he said.
“In addition to that, there are not a lot of E-85 stations out there. They might have a difficult time finding a station where they can fill up.”
One trend Sitzmann expects to see is the addition of blender pumps at fuel stations. These stations are equipped with both unblended ethanol and gasoline in separate tanks. Consumers can select their gasoline to ethanol ratio at the pump and it will be mixed on site.
If Sitzmann’s prediction about the future of the automobile industry is correct, pumps like these will begin to phase out the standard units that offer two or three choices of a fuel grade in around five years as high-compression engines make a market presence.
“We’re going to be looking at high compression, direct injection engines that will use optimum blends above 10 percent to run right,” Sitzmann predicted. “Because of the high compression, these engines will satisfy CAFE (fuel mileage) standards.”
In the meantime, Sitzmann said grain prices have played a role in decreased ethanol production, with a 15-percent total decline nationwide.
In spite of the national trend and drought conditions, E Energy Adams is continuing at full production and Sitzmann doesn’t see that changing in the near future.
“Because of our benchmarking in the industry, we can run a lot longer than almost everybody else,” Sitzmann said. “The drought is again giving us a challenge this year, but (ethanol plants) are producing about 10 percent of the nation’s fuel right now in the form of ethanol. That’s a big boost to the agriculture industry.”