Chores on the Broin family farm in the ‘80s probably weren’t the typical farm kid tasks. Sure they included tilling, planting, harvesting and raising livestock; but there was also the job of operating a farm-scale ethanol plant. It was small, and most probably saw it as too risky and too much work to be worth the trouble. That’s not how we saw it.
We saw perfectly good farmland going to waste. The government was paying to set aside arable acres; corn price was well below the cost of production because uses were limited and supply was high; rural America was falling while our dependence on foreign oil rose. We saw a chance to make a difference.
In 1987, my family purchased a foreclosed ethanol plant in South Dakota in a town with a booming population of 960. At 22, I was named General Manager and took up residency in the plant’s office area. It wasn’t the ideal lifestyle most young adults dream of, but I saw it as an opportunity.
I knew we had a chance to make this plant the beginning of a solution, and its impact could be enormous. We had a vision to create a market for ethanol where it could compete head-to-head with gasoline – a level-playing field, a fair-game marketplace. But it wasn’t going to happen overnight.
The plant in Scotland was the foundation for many to follow. We were pioneering an industry and a product that was unknown – and untrusted – by so many. There were ups and downs and times when we were running on pennies in the bank. It wasn’t easy, and huge risks were taken. It didn’t take long to learn that breakdowns and snags in the process weren’t a cause for frustration, but instead, an opportunity for learning.
Over two decades later, that small company, now 27 plants and 1.7 billion gallons of ethanol strong, hasn’t lost the knack for taking risks. It took a lot convincing at each site to bring investors and lenders on-board, and each site helped bring sections of small town America back to life.
That original plant, now POET Research Center, has become our flagship plant for new technologies. So many mutterings of “can’t” and “won’t” have been proven wrong. “It can be done,” might as well be etched in the walls of the building. PRC is now leading the charge for cellulosic ethanol with a successful pilot-scale facility operating adjacent to the original plant and our grain pilot-scale plant.
My vision from 23 years ago hasn’t changed. Ethanol now competes with gasoline at a larger scale than ever before, but that’s just a fraction of what this industry is capable of. We know what needs to happen and we’re making the changes to get there.
Growth Energy’s Fueling Freedom Plan calls for all U.S. vehicles to be Flex Fuel and a vast ethanol infrastructure including pipelines and blender pumps. It’s gaining traction. Rather than mandating 90 percent of their fuel choice be gasoline, we’ll provide American consumers a free-market and the ability to pick fuel from the Midwest over fuel from the Middle East.
And that teenager who grew up around that small ethanol plant with hope to make a bit of a difference? Let’s just say the challenges are larger, the tweaks and fixes come on an industry-wide scale now and we are much more recognized than before. And I assure you, the motivation to make a difference is still alive and well at POET.