By dedicating its first acquired and retrofitted ethanol plant since 1987, POET has brought renewed hope and a brighter future to Cloverdale, Indiana.
As basketball fans across the nation were eagerly awaiting the start of “March Madness,” the central Indiana town of Cloverdale, Indiana was experiencing some pretty significant hoopla of its own! On March 15, hundreds of farmers, community members, POET leaders, new team members, and government officials gathered near this town of 2,200 – known throughout the state for its own high school basketball achievements – for the reopening of its idled ethanol plant as POET’s newest biorefinery.
“This is an exciting day for POET and the Cloverdale area,” POET CEO Jeff Broin told guests. “New jobs, new revenue for area farmers and the chance to expand POET’s business to provide more renewable fuel make this a win for everyone involved. And with oil prices shooting to new heights due to unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, the need for more domestic ethanol production has never been more evident. I’m excited to be part of the solution along with everyone here today.”
The plant had originally commenced production as Altra Biofuels in April of 2008. But a combination of factors – skyrocketing corn prices, falling ethanol prices, increased construction costs, and the beginning of a worldwide recession – shut its doors a mere eight months after it had opened.
After a period of negotiations, POET was declared the successful bidder on the idled property in late June of 2010 (see Vital, Summer 2010, “A Rebound for Cloverdale”). Construction on upgrades to bring the facility up to POET standards commenced almost immediately, and was completed nine months later. But the biorefinery – POET’s 27th – that was dedicated on March 15 had come a long way from the plant that closed in December of 2008.
Some of the major upgrades include: the addition of two new huge corn storage bins, more than doubling the capacity from 1.1 to 2.4 million bushels; the addition of several mills to grind corn faster; increased corn receiving capacity, (which farmers have applauded) to eliminate a bottleneck that had caused long lines and long waits; the addition of POET’s energy-saving BPX® technology, which uses enzymes rather than heat for fermentation; the installation of improved pollution control equipment; and a new patent-pending technology set known as Total Water Recovery, in which virtually no liquid is discharged from the plant.
The newly-refurbished biorefinery will use 31 million bushels of area corn per year to produce 90 million gallons of ethanol and 246,500 tons of Dakota Gold® Brand dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS). It will also create 40 to 45 fulltime jobs (over 90 percent local) with annual payroll and benefits of $2 to 2.5 million.
“With all the construction we’ve done and the integration of new systems with old, I’m sure we’ll have a few surprises here and there,” says General Manager Dave Brooks. “But we believe it’s going to start up well and be one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly plants POET has.”
Brooks is also pleased with how the community has responded to the rebirth of the plant.
“It’s been fun and exciting seeing the local community get behind us and support us, and how enthusiastic people are about seeing this plant start up again,” says Brooks.
Both Easy and Difficult
For POET Design and Construction Project Manager Greg Tryon, pulling off the company’s first retrofitting of an idled plant in 24 years was a task he describes as “both easy and difficult.”
“Some parts of the project were quite simple to do, while some others were a little more challenging,” says Tryon. “In those latter areas, our engineers sometimes had to get pretty creative to put POET technology into an existing plant.”
Tryon says it helped that the plant was basically in good shape for as long as it had sat idle. He also said that overall, the plant presented a good foundation upon which to build. And while some aspects – like adding more corn storage – were pretty routine, other parts were trickier.
“Some things on-site didn’t match the original drawings,” says Tryon. “There were cases where ‘we thought we had X when we instead had Y,’ and we had to adjust on the fly to handle those.”
Another factor which complicated matters was the Indiana winter, one of the snowiest and coldest in years, coupled with some original design features.
“Most POET plants are built with the majority of the equipment inside, but here, most of it is outside,” says Tryon. “With the bulk of construction taking place during the winter, that did make it challenging, and there were times where we fell behind schedule. However, we had a lot of good contractors, and were eventually able to catch up.”
As a result of the differences in original design, Tryon says that the Cloverdale plant will look noticeably different from other POET plants, with not many closed buildings and much exposed equipment. But regarding the finished product, he was unequivocal.
“This facility will be absolutely as good as any other POET plant,” states Tryon. “The addition of BPX, Total Water Recovery, and the better emission controls, plus the other changes we’ve made, will put this on par with the rest of them.”
As the construction phase of the Cloverdale project was winding down, Tryon reflected on the experience.
“This one’s been different, with some unique challenges compared to other POET plants, but it’s been fun,” he says. “It’s been very rewarding, and I’m looking forward to seeing everything get running and getting this plant back into production.”
Grand Opening Day – Celebration Trumps Weather
As visitors started rolling into the new plant on shuttle buses about 9:30 a.m. on March 15 – which also happened to be National Agriculture Day – they were greeted by a driveway lined with American flags. They were also treated to some “typical” Indiana March weather – cloudy, rainy, and so chilly that later the Cloverdale High School choir members could see their breath as they sang the national anthem.
Persistent rain postponed morning tours until after lunch. Nevertheless, the hundreds of guests waited patiently in the Distillers Grains building for the start of the program at 11:00 a.m.
When things finally got rolling, Indiana Lt. Governor Becky Skillman told the audience that not only was the Cloverdale plant providing another step in the state’s economic comeback, but that it marked some other significant achievements as well.
“This facility – Indiana’s 13th – is not only helping to make Indiana a national leader in ethanol production, it has also put us over the 1 billion gallon per year mark, which was one of our administration’s original goals in 2005,” said Skillman. “On behalf of a very grateful state, thank you for your investment, and we look forward to watching your success and growth.”
Following Skillman to the podium, Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis, a Putnam County native, stressed the need for increased consumer choice, including more flex-fuel vehicles and blender pumps. He encouraged guests to join Growth Force to become advocates for ethanol.
POET CEO Broin reviewed company history, and then described his vision for the future, including the eventual elimination of oil imports, and the development of new co-products such as bio-chemicals, bio-polymers, specialty proteins and oils. He also spoke about the “Fueling Freedom Plan” to build out the ethanol infrastructure, and praised NASCAR’s recent decision to use Sunoco Green E15 in all three of its racing series.
After a buffet lunch, guests finally got their chance to tour the new facility. As they learned interesting facts, they also asked good questions and lots of them. Many were heard voicing their appreciation for the chance to come onto the grounds and see things firsthand.
At its core, the day was fundamentally about people and opportunities. Ken and Judy Sebastian, who raise corn, soybeans and cattle in neighboring Owen County, appreciate what having a new local market will do for their operation.
“I’ve delivered four loads here already and got 27 cents more per bushel,” said Ken. “I’ve never fed Distillers Grains (DDGS) yet, but I’m going to try some.”
And new Plant Technician James Porter was thankful to finally find steady, fulltime employment.
“I’ve got a great new job and I’m anxious to go to work,” said Porter. “To me, this is a long-term investment in the future of my family.”
The plant actually started grinding corn on March 22. While opening ceremonies are primarily a celebration, they had nevertheless served an important role in establishing a definite mood and tone. As visitors left and team members readied the event area to start receiving DDGS, the expectations could not have been clearer for this resurrected plant – the outcome of this ballgame would be very different than the first one.
Local Farmer Benefits Two Ways
Rob Mann is part of a family partnership that includes his dad Fred and brothers Chris and Joe. Together they operate a diversified crop and livestock (primarily hog) operation of about 7,500 acres in the Cloverdale area, centered about three miles southeast of the plant. Like many others they hated to see their community’s new ethanol plant close abruptly in 2008.
“It was very disappointing for the ag community,” says Mann of those days. “We saw the benefits of having a good local market for our corn, and we also fed distillers grains, so we benefitted two ways. But it was also disappointing to see the effects on the greater community and those people losing their jobs.”
After having briefly experienced the benefits of having an ethanol plant in the community, Mann continued to deal with other Indiana facilities, including buying distillers grains from POET’s biorefinery at Alexandria. But with the nearest plant being 75 miles away, the Manns found themselves spending lots of time and money on the road. When they heard that POET had purchased the idled facility, they were pleased.
“We’re thrilled about it,” says Mann. “It’s great to have a plant in this part of the state again.”
Mann is particularly enthusiastic about being able to get POET’s Dakota Gold DDGS.
“We really like Dakota Gold,” says Mann. “They’re very high quality, and they have a new grind that’s really good.”
Mann explains that although he likes being able to sell corn for good prices, the down side of that is that it costs more to feed his hogs. By feeding DDGS, he can very economically replace a portion of the corn and soybean meal in his hogs’ ration and counter some of that high cost.
“For a diversified operation like ours, it’s worked out really well for us,” he says. “We can sell the corn and haul back the DDGS.”
Besides the benefits to his farm operation, Mann also appreciates the value of the newly-reopened plant to his community.
“It’s a real benefit to Putnam County and surrounding area,” he says. “It will be a help to local businesses, the tax base, schools, and bring back some high-paying jobs. It’s a real plus for both agriculture and the whole community.”
Navy Vet – ‘Doing Something Good for Our Country’
When POET Biorefining – Cloverdale General Manager Dave Brooks speaks of “welcoming new team members on board,” that’s no idle expression. The rural Illinois native—who had never heard of Cloverdale, Indiana a year ago—served several years in the Navy after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. While there, he starred in basketball and helped recruit future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson.
“I know firsthand the real cost of going over there and defending that part of the world in order to keep the lanes for the foreign oil trade open,” says Brooks, who served in the Mediterranean aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. That experience has helped to shape Brooks’ perspective on the importance of ethanol to America.
“Ethanol is our most viable option now for countering our dependence on foreign oil,” says Brooks. “We’re just getting started, but with corn ethanol we’re already producing about 10 percent of our nation’s fuel. When we get into production of cellulosic ethanol, I believe we can produce our own fuel at home and eventually get off foreign oil altogether.”
Brooks finds it exciting to be a part of the ethanol industry, and is particularly pleased with the caliber of the team he’s been able to assemble at Cloverdale.
“We’re creating jobs here at home rather than overseas in countries that aren’t exactly our friends,” says Brooks. “I feel like I’m doing something good for our country.”
Grateful for Second Chance
When Joe Strong was originally hired by Altra Biofuels to work at the Cloverdale plant as a utility operator in 2008, he quickly discovered he had a passion for his new career.
“When I first came here, I was new to ethanol, but saw a lot of potential in it,” says Strong. “That’s what ultimately drew me here, and it was an exciting career change.”
But almost as soon as it started, the plant shut down.
“It was quite a shock,” recalls Strong of those days. “A lot of us here saw this as a long-term career and were really hoping to see the plant and ethanol go far. It was very disheartening and upsetting to everyone here to see what had come of it.”
Strong was one of the last to be laid off in early 2009. By that time the recession had kicked in with full force and job openings were virtually non-existent. He scraped by on savings for a couple of months, and then was hired temporarily by a management consulting firm, which had been retained by the plant’s receiver to clean it up and ready it for resale.
When Strong heard that POET was the successful bidder, he was ecstatic.
“I immediately felt a lot better, and some of us got our resumes in right away,” says Strong. “We knew that POET is pretty much the company in ethanol right now, and we felt confident the plant would have a good future with them.
Strong was one of several previous employees who were hired back. This time he’s a shift supervisor, and after completing his training, he’s feeling much better about his future.
“POET really seems to have their act together,” says Strong. “They know what they’re doing and how to get things done. I’m really glad to have another opportunity to be a part of the ethanol industry, and to come back to this plant and see it have a future.”