Wanamingo, Minn.: Birthplace of nation's first commercially viable ethanol plant
America's modern corn ethanol industry can claim many birthplaces, but innovative tinkering — and a good bit of listening — by Lowell Broin on his farm near Wanamingo, Minn., is generally credited with developing the nation's first modern commercially viable plant to turn corn to fuel.
"There were hundreds of small, experimental plants being built by farmers back then, but few worked," said Jeff Broin, who was in high school in 1983 when his father and older brother, Rob, spent much of their time building their plant in rural Goodhue County in an attempt to develop another market for corn. "What they did was to successfully learn from everyone else's mistakes, and adjust."
The first plant, whose capacity of 125,000 gallons was tiny by today's standards, passed the break-even point of profitability in 1986 and, like the first successful egg in the nest, the Broin fortunes began to grow quickly by taking advantage of weaker rivals.
"Most of the other plants were going bankrupt at the time because they broke down often, were inefficient, and their costs far exceeded income," Jeff Broin said.
The Broins were among the first to figure out how to remove the last bit of water from the distillation process, turning 185-proof corn alcohol into the 200-proof pure ethanol of commercial quality. In addition, they were quick to incorporate energy-saving processes into their plant to reduce operating costs.
Confident that they had a viable process, in 1987 the Broins bought a small plant out of bankruptcy in Scotland, S.D., near Sioux Falls, and put young Jeff Broin, then 22, in charge. By 1990 the Scotland plant produced a million gallons of corn ethanol, and the family broke ground on an expansion that would take production to 2.7 million gallons.
Today, Jeff Broin is general manager of POET Biorefining of Sioux Falls, the nation's largest corn ethanol producer with 22 plants in six states (four in Minnesota, soon to be five) distilling over 1 billion gallons annually.
The company is a recognized leader in innovation, continually working on ways to reduce energy consumption, recycle cooling water, produce more and more byproducts (mostly livestock feeds) from corn, and develop ways to produce ethanol from cellulose and biomass. "Just by utilizing corn cobs, we think we can eventually produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol," Broin said.
Last year, POET received an $80 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help build what will be the nation's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant at its complex near Emmetsburg, Iowa.
Broin said the plant should be operational in three to four years. In the meantime, the company is embarked on major new plants in Ohio and Indiana to move ethanol production nearer major fuel markets in the eastern United States.
There were earlier uses of ethanol in the U.S. and abroad. Henry Ford used an alcohol concoction to power his first cars until the much cheaper oil became available. More famously, Germany used cellulosic (not corn) ethanol to power its military machine during World War II after the Allies successfully denied oil to the Nazi regime.
The corn ethanol industry has taken off in Minnesota, benefiting many rural areas. How did this happen? Subsidies fueled by politics and lobbying.
Politicians and special interests aggressively push corn ethanol as an environmentally friendly solution to the nation's energy problems, but scientists and agriculture experts aren't so sure.
The federal government pays 51 cents of the cost of every gallon of ethanol you buy, prompting this question: Is ethanol worth it?
Production of corn ethanol is rapidly expanding, but plans are underway for a "next generation" renewable fuel —and Minnesota's rural areas could reap huge benefits.