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Making the Most Out of Renewable Energy

  • Thursday, 14 March 2019 10:41

Southern Minn

March 14, 2019

By Anna Vangsness

Farmers and local agriculture businesses in Steele County are cashing in on a winning hand: renewable energy and ag.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wind, solar and biomass energy can be harvested forever, providing farmers with a long-term source of income. Renewable energy can be used on the farm to replace other fuels or sold as a “cash crop.”

One organization in Steele County that has figured out the winning combination has been at the forefront of the renewable energy game since 1995. Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont grinds 44 million bushels of corn and produces 130 million gallons of ethanol annually. The plant also produces 310,000 tons of high protein livestock feed and 28 million pounds of corn oil. The majority of these co-products are consumed by refiners, livestock feeders and biodiesel producers throughout Minnesota.

“When the plant was built in 1995, it was designed to be a 10 million gallon plan,” Al-Corn CEO Randall Doyal said. “Now we’re producing at 13 times bigger than it was built for.”

The reason behind such an impressive growth is that there was a very local market for corn growth in southern Minnesota that didn’t exist prior to Al-Corn.

“As farmers have gotten more efficient, they can produce more and more corn from every acre,” Doyal said. “Our industry has consumed it and given it a place to go. We’re turning into valuable products and, in turn, it’s raised their corn price.”

Ethanol is the gift that keeps on giving because now farmers don’t have to ship their product as far as they used to.

“That alone saves transportation costs, so they get more value,” Doyal said. “When farmers here decided to do this, their hope, their dream, was to get an extra 25 cents a bushel for their corn. The farmers that invested in our plant and delivers here, they got the value of processing. For 20 years, we’ve averaged 75 cents a bush of corn.”

By processing the corn in Minnesota and taking off the starch and carbohydrates, which they don’t need, Al-Corn is able to take the carbohydrates and convert it to ethanol. The rest of the corn is concentrated and made into a feed. That allows Al-Corn to reduce the cost of transportation and decrease the need for livestock feed because it’s produce right in Minnesota.

“In this case, we generate an industry and money that stays at home,” Doyal explained. “That’s what we’re seeing in local communities and states across the midwest.”

Doyal said many people don’t know it, but they, too are using corn-made ethanol every day.

“If you’re running gasoline in your car, you’re burning at least 10 percent ethanol or better,” he said. “In Minnesota, we use about 13 percent ethanol.”

While there is limit to how much ethanol can be produced, Doyal said that number isn’t going to be reached soon. What he sees for the future is ethanol being in more countries that are waking up to the benefit of the renewable energy.

“We’re starting to see blending happening around the world,” he said. “We produce it in the United States cheaper than anywhere in the world.”

Though Al-Corn doesn’t directly ship internationally, Doyal anticipates that some day they may due to the leaps in energy efficiency and productivity.

“The goal when I started was to get two and one half gallons of ethanol from every bushel of corn we ran,” he said. “Today, we’re producing three gallons of ethanol. With the way we use energy in the plant, we’ve decreased our energy consumption over one-third. We’re finding different ways to use energy more efficiently with heat exchange and just finding better ways of doing things, farmers are doing the same.

With other forms of renewable energy, Doyal said the benefit is the ability to reuse it over and over again.

Also working to reuse as much renewable energy as they can is the Steele-Waseca Co-Op Electric (SWCE) said General Manager Syd Briggs.

SWCE buys power wholesale and distributes it to homes, farms and businesses. Briggs said the cooperative encourages members to do whatever it takes to save money and use renewable energy.

“We help with rebates, help assist with distraction energy resources, if you want to put in wind, solar or turbines, we’ll work with you on that, too,” he said.

If a home, farm or business has a renewable energy form working, SWCE will even trade for it. Meaning, if they use 1,000 hours of electricity but they’ve also generated 1,000 hours of electricity, they won’t have to buy it from SWCE. As a bonus, if someone generates more than 1,000 hours of electricity, SWCE will pay them a retail rat for it.

“We have 60 people out of 11,300 doing that, but that number will go up,” he said. “Just this year we had 20 people come on.”

Briggs said in the long run, renewable energy works to cutdown harmful emissions, especially carbon dioxide. Whether producing it from solar or wind, it’s that much more renewable and carbon free.

“Overall, the benefit is that it makes it a cleaner environment and makes you more self-sufficient,” he said. “In time, the third thing it will do is be cost effective. We’re not necessarily there yet, but in time it will happen.”

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