In Nebraska, cows are helping to produce ethanol. A 28,000-cow feedlot in Mead, Nebraska, is powering the neighboring Genesis Ethanol Plant, owned by E3 Biofuels LLC. The cows are providing 300,000 tons of manure per year, which is turned into methane via anaerobic digestion and accounts for 100% of the thermal energy needed to distill 25 million gallons of ethanol each year.
Additional operational efficiencies persist even after the production of ethanol is finished. Thin stillage, a by-product, is sent back to the digester to maintain temperature and provide more raw materials for biogas production. The other main by-product, wet distillers grain, is sent back to the feedlot and fed to the cows. The wet distillers grains comprise about 40% of the cattle’s diet. Normally, the distillers grains have to be dried in order to be transported and sold. The process of drying distillers grains typically represents one third of an ethanol plant’s thermal energy requirement.
E3 reports that the Genesis plant avoids $6.5 to $7.25 million in natural gas that would be required to fuel the boilers. There is also $2-$3 million in savings by not having to heat wet distillers grain in order to dry it for shipping. The plant also sells biodigester effluent, a high-quality fertilizer and by-product of the anaerobic digestion process, to local farmers.
The close proximity of the feedlot operation wasn’t the only reason that brought E3 to Mead; the existence of slatted floors in the feedlot played a key role. It is rare, and expensive, for this flooring technology to be used in feedlots of this size. The slatted floors allow for the manure to be easily collected below the feedlot, cleaned, and pumped into the anaerobic digester. Inside the digester, bacteria breaks down the manure, resulting in bio-methane that is channeled to the ethanol plant.
Not well known is that the E3 Biofuels plant was a pilot project of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmentally Responsible Redevelopment and Reuse (ER3) initiative that works to site environmental projects on formerly contaminated properties. The ethanol facility is located on a portion of a Superfund clean-up site (former ammunition manufacturing facility) and a letter from the EPA helped facilitate a $70 million loan for the project.
The Genesis plant is certainly a boost to the Mead economy. The plant and the feedlot represent 90 jobs for the town of 564 people. Annually, the ethanol plant will require 8.5 million bushels of local farmers’ corn. However, unlike some cooperatively owned ethanol plants, the area farmers do not own this plant and do not benefit financially from the value-added aspect of the ethanol production.
We here at Democratic Energy like smaller, dispersed ethanol facilities and we’d prefer that the farmers had an ownership stake in this venture. While this particular plant is on smaller scale than many other proposed ethanol plants, E3 is not necessarily committed to smaller facilities. E3 would like to bring 15 more plants online in the next 5 years, each producing 50 to 100 million gallons of ethanol a year. This would require manure from feedlots of 60,000 to 120,000 cattle per plant. According to information from USDA, there were 55 feedlot operations in the U.S. in 2004 hosting more than 32,000 head of cattle.
We like that there appears to be a great deal of synergy between these two industrial facilities and are happy seeing the efficiency gains that are occurring but we hope that this type of ethanol plant arrangement could be done economically with smaller feedlots.