Photo by Jeff Adkins/Farm Flavor Media

In a society on the go, cars are no longer a luxury, but a necessity, for many people. It is estimated that 2 billion motor vehicles will be in operation by 2025. For North Dakota’s corn growers and ethanol producers, this continued growth means a steady increase in demand for one of the state’s fastest-growing industries.

A Sustainable Fuel

The sugars found in plants like corn can easily and relatively inexpensively be converted into clean-burning renewable alcohol fuels. These biofuels – derived from living matter rather than carbon-based energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas – offer a renewable resource that helps create jobs and increase the value of the country’s corn crop.

“The ethanol industry has greatly enhanced the value of corn in North Dakota and across the U.S.,” says Dale Ihry, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council. The council works with corn farmers to increase the value of their crop, and helps educate and promote corn across the state.

In North Dakota, the ethanol industry contributes more than $624 million annually and employs more than 1,100 people. While the ethanol industry is relatively new compared to other value-added agriculture enterprises, the infrastructure of corn growers and fuel producers, transportation, and sources of dried distillers grains for livestock feed places the state in a good position for growth in this industry.

Local Impact

Ethanol was first produced in North Dakota in 1985, but the industry took off in 2007 when Red Trail Energy was built in Richardton. Red Trail manufactures ethanol, grinding approximately 23 million bushels of corn into 63 million gallons of ethanol and 233,000 tons of byproducts including dried distillers grains, modified distillers grains, corn oil and syrup, which feed about 220,000 head of cattle.

“Much of our ethanol goes to states in the Pacific Northwest including Oregon and California, and about 14 percent goes to Montana,” says Dustin Willett, chief operating officer. “Our dried distillers grains get shipped to feed lots around the country, a lot to Montana, Idaho and here in North Dakota. Our modified corn oil stays right here.”

Red Trail has a $350 million economic impact on the state and the recent update of coal-fired boilers to natural gas has increased production by 10 million gallons per year.

“We run a lot cleaner and are much more efficient,” Willett says.

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto/Farm Flavor Media

A Booming Industry

Since Red Trail was built, four more ethanol plants began operations in North Dakota, including Tharaldson Ethanol plant at Casselton. Collectively, the five plants produce 520 million gallons of ethanol each year. With 160 to 180 million bushels of corn used by these plants each year, nearly half of the state’s corn crop is used in biofuel production.

“We buy most of our corn from farmers within a 60-mile radius of our plant,” says Ryan Thorpe, chief operating officer at Tharaldson Ethanol. “We grind about 16 million bushels of corn each year for the 185 million gallons of ethanol we produce, which utilizes about 17 percent of North Dakota corn.

“In our ten years of production, we’ve never had to import corn from outside of North Dakota.”

Tharaldson exports its biofuels and byproducts around the state, to the southern U.S., and internationally to countries like China and India.

“Demand for motorized fuel continues to grow at a constant rate, particularly in areas like China and India that have such rapidly expanding populations,” Thorpe says. “We expect the North Dakota industry will continue to grow with it.”

The Future Is Bright

Advancements in production technology and continued education about the importance of cleaner and alternative fuel sources help ensure the future of the biofuel industry.

“I see continuous improvements every day,” Thorpe says. “Yields increase, costs decrease. We are learning to make more with less and at a cheaper cost.”

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