Optimism in Onida

FROM THE OCTOBER ISSUE: It’s a challenging time to bring an ethanol plant online, but June marked the beginning of operations at Ringneck Energy & Feed in South Dakota.
By Matt Thompson | September 20, 2019

Once commonplace for the ethanol industry, the opening of a new plant is a rare occurrence now. And despite slumping margins nationwide, Onida, South Dakota’s new ICM-designed ethanol plant, Ringneck Energy & Feed, commenced operations this spring after a longer-than-expected planning and construction phase.

So far, operations at the 80 MMgy plant have gone well, according to Mike Stanley, plant manager. “We’ve still got a few little bugs to work out, but every day we’re getting closer to no bugs,” he says.
Walt Wendland, president and CEO and chairman of Ringneck Energy, says the challenging economic environment made it crucial to ensure the plant was engineered for efficiency. “Definitely, we’re trying to optimize on our advantages in this area,” he says. “When they engineered the plant, they put in all high-efficiency motors and all LED lighting and where they could improve energy efficiency, they already kind of have.”

Dave VanderGriend, CEO of ICM Inc., agrees. “We tried to be as economical as possible in the design. We made a few design changes to lower the overall cost to building the plant. And with Fagen as a contractor, who is probably the most knowledgeable contractor for ethanol plants, they also did some things to help economize the cost of construction.” In addition to designing the plant, ICM’s Energy Management Services manages it.

Stanley adds that efficiency in operations is a focal point, also. “We bought what we thought would be the best enzymes and yeast, and tried to dose as conservatively as possible. We were trying to be as efficient as possible right out of the gate to save some money.”

Inputs and Outputs
While much of the corn growing in the Midwest was hampered by an extremely wet spring, Wendland told Ethanol Producer Magazine in June that the planting woes were less of an issue for the Onida area than other regions. That can be both a blessing and challenge, Wendland says. “We’re quite a ways away from other demand for corn,” he says. “We do realize that if we’ve got corn out here, there’s going to be a lot of people trying to take it away from us. They’re going to have to be competitive.”

In early August, despite a recent damaging storm, he said conditions were still favorable. “As far as crop conditions go, I still have to say, we’re as good or better than any other place in the state,” Wendland said. But, in the event there is a corn shortage, Wendland said the plant does have a grain sorghum bid. “We’ll try to utilize some of that crop, too, to fill up a shortfall, if there is any.”
Stanley also says the corn crop still looks better in the Onida area than it does in other areas. “I think, if anything, it looks better than it did a few months ago, around here anyway,” he says. “I went to Minneapolis last week, and you could definitely tell it’s not as good further east of here,” he said in early August.

Stanley has 20 years of experience in ethanol and has been involved with a few other plant startups. He says the biggest challenge for Ringneck so far has been finding a market for its wet cake. “The original plan was to be starting up before Christmas,” he says. “There’s just more of a wet cake market in the winter time.” But Ringneck has started to find buyers. “It’s like anything new, you’ve got to work yourself into the market,” Stanley says.

Wendland agrees. “We limited production due to the wet feed that we could find a market for, although we joined forces with Dakotaland Feeds, who markets for three other plants, and that’s really helped us, too,” he says. “I know in the winter we’re going to be darn near selling all of it wet, but in the summer, especially in a summer like this, where there’s so much grass and hay, there’s not a lot of demand right now.”

Tested Technology, Different Design
Wendland says construction of the plant began in September of 2017, following some preliminary dirt work in the winter of 2015. “The permitting process took a while,” he says, adding that the air permit wasn’t acquired until September 2016. “[Ringneck] signed our substantial completed document on May 13 of this year, and passed the performance test on June 4.”

The plant doesn’t include much in the way of new technology, but it does incorporate some new design elements, Wendland says. “This was ICM’s first chance to build a U.S. plant that they could redesign to be more efficient,” he says. “I think they were pretty happy with the redesign to help prevent some of the issues they’ve had at other plants through the years.”

A crucial part of the redesign is the Evap Zero technology. “After the vapor goes through the mole sieves, it goes through the Evap Zero and it starts the evaporation process on the thin stillage and condenses the 200-proof from the sieve, so you get some really nice heat recovery there,” Wendland says.

VanderGriend says Evap Zero was designed for safety. “The original design that ICM had done 15, 18 years ago, had evap No. 1 being the 200-proof condenser, and then when a person wanted to clean that evaporator, you switched to evap No. 2 for the cleaning,” he says. “By designing an Evap Zero where we condense the 200-proof vapors with steam condensate and turn it into boiler steam rather than ethanol vapors, we were able to address that issue and make the plant just a little bit of a safer design.” That change also helped cut down on costs during construction, Wendland says.

Another change from ICM’s previous designs was locating ethanol outside of the process building. “The other ICM plants always had ethanol within the process building, and some places required full or partial sprinkling, and by relocating that part of the facility outside with the rest of the distillation, it helped keep our sprinkling cost down,” Wendland says.

The plant also features larger evaporators. “They’re more efficient and easier to manage because you don’t have to manage eight, you only have to manage four,” Wendland says.

ICM’s Selective Milling Technology was also installed, Stanley says. “We did incorporate selective milling technology right from the get-go. A lot of plants just add it after the fact, but we just kind of integrated that right with the initial construction.” VanderGriend says incorporating SMT into the design offered a few benefits to the plant, including higher conversion efficiency and the option to use larger screens in the hammermill process.

Ringneck uses version two of ICM’s SMT, designed to improve energy consumption. “The real purpose behind version two compared to version one was horsepower—trying to reduce the amount of horsepower in the plant,” VanderGriend says. “And because of the (renewable identification number) credits and the carbon score, we did everything we could at this plant to keep the electrical consumption as low as possible.”

Wendland agrees. “The ICM SMT incorporated the roller mills instead of the wet mill grinder that took a lot more horsepower. They get better particle size out of the roller mills and less horsepower requirement, which is important to us to keep our energy down.”

Further improvements could be on the radar in the future, but Wendland is pleased with the plant’s design and efficiency. “I don’t know if there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, so any improvements that we make because of the redesign are probably going to be fairly major,” he says. “Not just the little things.” He adds that the plant might consider upgrading its dryers to get more capacity during the summer months. In addition, Stanley says, the plant is considering adding technology to allow it to produce high-protein feed.

Friendly Location
Ringneck is located in an area of South Dakota where ethanol production is sparse. Onida is northeast of Pierre, South Dakota, and according to Ethanol Producer Magazine’s plant map, the closest plants are farther east near Redfield, Huron and Mina. While it’s a new industry for the area, both Wendland and Stanley say the community has been supportive of the plant. “The construction period was great for business and we’re doing as much business locally as we can,” Wendland says. “And even though we’re a little close to town, they’re used to hearing fans for the grain bins and traffic, so it hasn’t seemed to be too big a deal.”

“The town really seems, for the most part, receptive of having the plant here, which is kind of nice,” Stanley says. “That means the community is hoping that we’re successful.”

And VanderGriend says the plant has been good for the local ag economy in Onida. “That plant was located in a very corn-surplus area and the farmers were experiencing lower prices because there was not enough demand for their corn,” he says. “The ethanol plant definitely improves the agricultural economy in that area.”

Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine