Blue Flint Ethanol starts production

By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | March 06, 2007
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An ethanol facility with a uniquely resourceful energy source began continuous production at full capacity shortly after its start-up in mid-February. The 50 MMgy Blue Flint Ethanol plant in Underwood, N.D., is unique among ethanol plants that rely mostly on natural gas to power boilers and dry distillers grains.

The facility does not have a boiler or the infrastructure associated with one. Instead, it is directly integrated with the adjacent Coal Creek Station coal-fired power plant. Blue Flint purchases the power plant's waste steam, which provides all the heat for producing ethanol and drying distillers grains. "We have a steam line coming over from the plant and a condensate line running back," Blue Flint General Manager Jeff Zueger said. In addition, the power plant provides water for Blue Flint and the facilities share an integrated fire protection system.

Zueger told Ethanol Producer Magazine that the integration took more up-front planning. "[For the air permit] we needed to get some determinations that these were separate sources and separate sites before the power plant took on the joint venture," he said. "Once that determination was done that it was a separate source, the permitting was the same as any other ethanol plant, minus the boiler permits."

The plant also uses steam in steam tube dryers to dry distillers grains. Zueger said the plant is capable of completely drying the distillers grains or producing modified wet grains. Currently, 90 percent of the distillers grains is dried and railed to the West Coast. The remaining modified distillers wet grains is used within a radius up to 70 miles.

Obviously, this synergy with the power plant reduces the energy cost for Blue Flint. The actual amount of savings compared to other ethanol plants is dependent on the price of natural gas. "Low energy costs are our key to long-term success," Zueger said.

Blue Flint was conceived as a way to utilize the waste heat of the Coal Creek power plant. Sixty percent of the energy from the power plant's steam was wasted, Zueger said. Originally, the plant was using the steam to dry lignite coal. Minnesota-based Great River Energy, the rural electric co-op that owns Coal Creek, determined that ethanol production would be a good fit and it partnered with Headwaters Inc. for management and operations of the ethanol plant. Headwaters is a publicly traded energy services company based in Utah, and is the majority owner of Blue Flint Ethanol.

Blue Flint will use 18 million bushels of corn per year, the majority of which arrives on a short line railroad from southeast North Dakota. The remaining one-third of the corn comes from local production, Zueger said.

Underwood's proximity to Bismarck State College (BSC) provided for "a fantastic workforce," Zueger said. Blue Flint is located near Underwood, N.D., which is 50 miles north of Bismarck.

BSC has a Process Plant Technology Program, which trains many workers for the ethanol industry. "We were able to get really good, strong, well-qualified individuals that wanted to live and work in this area," Zueger said.

Blue Flint Ethanol LLC
Location: Underwood, North Dakota
Design/builder: Fagen Inc.
Process technology: ICM Inc.
Capacity: 50 MMgy
Feedstock: corn
Ethanol marketer: Eco-Energy Inc.
Distillers Grains marketer: Commodity Specialists Company
Broke ground: November 2005
Start-up date: February 2007

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at (701) 746-8385 or

Posted: 12:11 p.m. CST Thursday, March 15, 2007