Transformers

By Tom Bryan | July 11, 2013

The parched fields within 100 miles of Poet Biorefining-Macon, the ones not abandoned during last year’s drought, produced less than 50 bushels of low quality corn per acre. Starved of feedstock, the ethanol plant shut down in February—with a plan—turning its rock-bottom moment into an opportunity for reinvention.

This month’s page-30 cover story, “Getting it Done,” by EPM Senior Editor Sue Retka Schill, tells us the story of how Poet and its Macon, Mo., ethanol plant’s board of directors took advantage of the facility’s downtime by installing $14 million in upgrades. It’s yet another example of the industrious resilience of American ethanol producers. Rather than shutting down and waiting, Poet-Macon shut down and got busy. In less than three months, the facility re-emerged with a new administration building, a new control system, new evaporators, corn extraction capability and new fermentation tanks for Poet’s patented no-cook starch hydrolysis technology, BPX.

Today, with its upgrades completed and BPX on the way, the 13-year-old plant will soon join the ranks of the top performers in Poet’s 26-facility fleet.  However, it’s not as if Poet-Macon was a perennial laggard before its renovation. As Retka Schill explains, the plant historically enjoyed cheap corn and was running efficiently and profitably up until the past couple of years.  In some ways, the facility was a victim of its own comfortable success. “When you’re running a production facility and you’re profitable, it’s pretty hard to slow your production levels,” John Eggleston, the plant’s board chairman, tells Retka Schill.

The transformation storyline carries into our page-36 feature, “Taking Inbicon to the Next Level.” At this year’s International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, EPM Managing Editor Holly Jessen sat down with representatives of DONG Energy, Inbicon and their North American marketing and commercialization partner, Leifmark. Like Poet, Inbicon seeks to transform through investment. Still looking for its big U.S. project, DONG has put more than $200 million into the effort globally and plans to invest another $20 million to get across the commercialization finish line. Earlier this summer, Inbicon announced that it will license its technology in four commercial versions, three of which are new. One of the versions integrates cellulosic ethanol production capability into existing grain ethanol plants.

Jessen explains that ethanol producers incorporating the integrated system would have the ability to periodically suspend grain ethanol production when corn prices rise. Producers hit hard by last year’s drought may agree that having both cellulosic and corn ethanol production capability with a built-in shut-off valve for one or the other could save a plant from a temporary shutdown, or worse, in future pinches. Enjoy the reading.

Tom Bryan, President & Editor in Chief
tbryan@bbiinternational.com