Winnebago Online

After months of extensive repairs, a southern Minnesota ethanol plant—nearly three decades old and idled in 2019—is once again up and running.
By Tom Bryan | January 14, 2022

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his team and local leaders on a crisp, early November morning—a revived biorefinery humming behind them—Greenfield Global CEO Howard Field beamed with pride as he cut a red ribbon to mark the restart of Minnesota’s oldest dry mill ethanol plant.

“This ushers in a new era of North American production for Greenfield,” Field said, highlighting the Canada-based company’s first move into biofuels production in the U.S.

And Field knew the moment represented more than just a new chapter for Greenfield, but a renewed sense of opportunity for Winnebago, Minnesota, which had lost a major employer when the plant, formerly known as Corn Plus, shut its doors in 2019. Field and his team had heard firsthand how losing the plant didn’t just affect the people who worked there, but the hundreds of farmer-shareholders that sold corn to the plant—and owned a stake of it— along with every area business that benefitted from its presence for 25 years.

The opportunity to restore what had been taken away from Winnebago was a unique opportunity for Greenfield, and an action that seemed unlikely to the town’s residents after Corn Plus shut down.

When the plant ceased operations amid difficult market conditions in August of 2019, disappointment permeated throughout the community of 1,417. The plant was mothballed, gated and put up for sale. And with an already doubtful fate, its chances of reopening dimmed when Covid-19 set in the following spring. Corn Plus sat empty and silent throughout most of 2020. And then suddenly, out of nowhere—but, as it were, Canada—Greenfield Global arrived, buying the beleaguered asset out of receivership and promising to bring the legacy biorefinery back to life.

The Plant's Condition and Fit
Greenfield’s management team knew refurbishing the plant wouldn’t be easy, says McCord Pankonen, the plant’s new general manager and a key project lead on the refurbishment. The quarter-century-old plant was in rough shape, but if a company like Greenfield—with three decades of experience in biofuels and a name synonymous with “new construction”—couldn’t revive the 48 MMgy ethanol facility, who could?

Pankonen says Greenfield examined  the Winnebago plant inside and out before the acquisition. “We assessed the condition of the whole plant, of course, but it was equally  important to make sure it was a good fit with Greenfield’s existing biofuels portfolio,” he says, explaining that the company has four other ethanol plants (or “ethanol distilleries,” as Greenfield calls them) in Canada. “What we found was that the plant, its location, the way it’s set up, and the resources available to us in the Winnebago area—chiefly, the supply of corn—looked great and made sense for Greenfield.”

In addition to an ample supply of corn, Pankonen explains several additional factors supported Greenfield’s decision to purchase the plant, including its centralized location in southern Minnesota and its rail and logistics setup. 

Greenfield made the purchase for an undisclosed amount, and after several months of repairing and replacing equipment, the facility has been revived as Greenfield Global Winnebago. The plant began commissioning in November and was ramping up to full capacity at press time in early January. 

While Greenfield has already invested millions in the Winnebago plant, Pankonen says further investment may be coming. The company is continuing to evaluate new technologies that would further enhance the plant’s performance and efficiency, particularly as it relates to achieving lower carbon intensity. For now, the team in Winnebago is focused on throughput and quality while bringing the plant up to Greenfield’s core expectations. “It has taken a considerable investment to bring this facility up to our Greenfield Global standard, and we still have a way to go in terms of reaching that top-tier status,” Pankonen says. “We’ll get there in early 2022.”

Comprehensive Improvements
The Winnebago restart was relatively swift given that the upgrades didn’t begin until the spring of 2021. Pankonen says activity at the plant peaked in the summer and early fall before the plant was prepared for recommissioning in early November. While he wasn't able to provide specifics on the various improvements made at the plant, Pankonen simply says the work was “comprehensive” and he describes the plant’s refurbishment as not a single project, but many interconnected improvements. 

“Some were smaller projects, others were obviously larger and more involved, but almost every part of the plant had some kind of upgrade or repair,” he says. “These plants don’t like to sit, and when they’re idle for long periods of time you basically have to look at everything and assume the worst. We went through the plant with a magnifying glass to understand exactly what it needed in terms of repairs. Honestly, the upgrades span through the whole facility.”

Pankonen, a 20-year veteran of the biofuels industry, has managed ethanol plant construction projects before and says the work in Winnebago was somewhat less intense than new plant construction, but nonetheless bustling at times. “I can tell you that it was certainly a busy schedule—a very busy place for months on end—with many contractors and vendors on site working,” he says, adding that Greenfield’s relationships with its core U.S. vendors were strengthened during the process. “The companies that helped us have been outstanding, a real testament to how great people in this business are.”

New and Existing Partners
Greenfield Global is the largest ethanol producer in Canada and, in addition to owning and operating five ethanol distilleries (including the Winnebago facility), the company owns four specialty chemical manufacturing and packaging plants and R&D centers in the United States, Canada and Ireland.

Under its Pharmco and Commercial Alcohols brands, the company delivers hundreds of products to life science, food, flavor, fragrance, and beverage customers in more than 50 countries worldwide.

With a longtime presence in biofuels, Greenfield’s existing relationships with industry suppliers and service providers helped streamline the Winnebago restart. “The partnerships we have in place with product suppliers and service providers did help tremendously,” Pankonen says. “All of our vendors have been there for us, making sure we have all the inventory and ingredients needed to get the plant up and running.”

New partnerships have been formed, too. Greenfield formed an agreement with Central Farm Service, a large regional grain cooperative, to source corn for the Winnebago facility. CFS has seventeen grain locations in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. The partnership between Greenfield and CFS also includes an offtake agreement for the plant’s DDGS.

“When you’re restarting a plant, your goal is to achieve reliable, daily production. Feedstock is obviously a fundamental part of that,” Pankonen says. “Partnering with CFS has allowed us to focus on restarting this plant while they procure our grain and market our DDGS. It’s a smart arrangement that really makes sense.”

CFS’ procurement reach also reestablishes the ethanol plant’s connection with area corn farmers. As Jean Roberge, executive vice president and managing director of Greenfield’s renewable energy segment, recently said, restarting the plant and procuring grain through CFS “reestablishes a market for Minnesota corn growers.”

New and Existing Tech
Despite its challenges, Corn Plus had invested in numerous upgrades over the past decade, and Greenfield is now assessing several potential new technologies for the Winnebago plant. While no decisions have been made yet, the company is currently examining possible enhancements. “Nothing we can share right now, but we’re vetting everything that makes sense,” Pankonen says. “Long-term, low-carbon technologies and carbon sequestration are certainly of interest to us. Ultimately, we want to be a part of the ethanol industry’s future, which we believe will involve carbon reduction strategies.”

At the ribbon-cutting in November, Roberge said, “We are confident that our best practices, paired with the technology adaptation experience of our combined staff, will produce Greenfield’s industry-leading, low carbon intensity biofuels from this facility.”

In addition to carbon capture opportunities, many North American ethanol producers are lowering the carbon intensity of the fuel they produce by using less fossil-based energy for process heat and power. CHP, biogas, hydro, solar and wind power are all being deployed. Notably, the Winnebago plant already has two wind turbines on site that are not currently supplying power to the facility, but could possibly be recommissioned. In addition to a biomass boiler, Corn Plus installed the wind turbines about 15 years ago, generating 4.2 megawatts of power, or 45% of the plant’s electricity needs. Bringing them back into service is intriquing, Pankonen says. “It’s something we’re actively looking at.”

A New Team
When Corn Plus shut down in 2019, all of the plant’s employees were laid off. Since reopening, Pankonen says, roughly 25% of the plant’s legacy employees have come back to work at the facility, and while most positions were filled quickly, some openings still remained in late December. “It’s exciting to be building this team,” Pankonen says. “We’re looking for the best and brightest people when hiring, and that’s exactly what this area has given us. It’s a great talent pool, but also a competitive market, especially with the pandemic and the tight labor force we’re in right now, but we’ve been able to adapt and make positive adjustments.”

Pankonen says hiring new personnel, as well as former Corn Plus personnel, has been rewarding. “It’s a unique opportunity to bring a workplace back to life in a community like Winnebago,” he says. “We pride ourselves in making our facilities safe environments for our employees, but we also want them be fun, positive workplaces. Making ethanol can be a joy, and people who have been a part of this industry for a long time understand that. The opportunity to hire back some of those veteran people has been a pleasure, as is seeing this plant once again become a positive force in the community.”

Author: Tom Bryan
Contact: [email protected]