ND plant sees good future for ethanol, ramps up to 150 MMgy

By Holly Jessen | April 20, 2011

There are only a handful of ethanol plants that are larger than Tharaldson Ethanol Inc. in Casselton, N.D. In fact, a tour of the facilities and grounds reveals that at least one employee makes use of a dusty bike to get around more quickly.

Certain areas of the 120 MMgy nameplate capacity plant were built oversized, said Russ Newman, vice president of public relations and governmental affairs. That allowed the company to embark on an expansion project in early 2010. Today, the plant turns 54 million bushels of corn into about 150 MMgy of ethanol and 450,000 tons of DDG. “We’re permitted to 153 (MMgy) but we’ll probably produce about 150 at the pace we’re doing,” Newman told EPM.

Fermentation and distillation were two areas where the company realized it could probably move through more ethanol than the nameplate capacity. “We had some bottlenecks in the plant, so we had to make some capital investment and some tweaking,” he said.

The company also did a lot of work in the DDG drying area, doubling drying capacity by adding two more rotary drum dryers. The facility now has a total of four dryers, which work in pairs. “If you can’t get it out the back end you’re going to have a log jam there,” he said.

Tharaldson does sell wet distillers grains to cattle producers in the Red River Valley, particularly in winter. However, the amount is limited due to the limited cattle numbers. “If we do 5 to 10 percent wet, that’s probably the most we can expect,” he said.

 The plant isn’t the only place the company is thinking big. It has 6.5 million bushels of corn storage capacity, which is about three times what is typical, Newman said. The idea is to be able to purchase more corn when it’s at a good price, considering the volatile commodity market. “It gives us some flexibility,” he said.

The expansion project was a “reasonable risk” for Tharaldson, Newman said, because the company believes the ethanol industry has a bright future. The plant, which completed start up in late 2008, is ideally located, with ample supplies of corn and access to natural gas and transportation infrastructure. The company built 10 miles of track that includes an on-site loop that is eight cars wide. “We can park up to 5-600 cars on that loop,” he said. “We’ve got the capacity to store cars and move them efficiently.”

Nearly 90 percent of the ethanol produced leaves Casselton in unit trains. The company sends some to the St. Louis area, where it is barged down the river to Texas, as well as to the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast. “It’s been more spread out than we anticipated,” he said, adding that it was originally thought most ethanol would go to the Seattle/Portland area.

The plant is also set up to accept local truck traffic. North Dakota has a very active blender pump program, which the company is very active in and supportive of. In fact, Tharaldson’s home state has more blender pumps installed than any other state—and the goal is to keep expanding. “It makes a heck of a lot more sense to use our product in the Midwest than to pay the freight to ship it to the West Coast,” Newman said. “Now we realize we can always be exporting it out of the state but let’s use as much of it here as we can.”