Time Testing

As the industry matures, the lifespan of today's dry-grind ethanol facilities is becoming increasingly important. Producing more ethanol now is the order of the day. But as the renewable fuel becomes a mainstay of the United States' transportation fuel infrastructure, can ethanol plants葉he physical structures themselves and the equipment within them様ast as long as consumer demand for the product?
By Dave Nilles | May 01, 2006
Steel and concrete.

While not the stuff of pyramids, it's a simple and effective combination that translates into strong, long-lasting structures. These core modern day building materials provide the backbone of the ethanol industry's production infrastructure.

While some of the world's most famed structures have withstood a millennium or more, no one expects ethanol plants to last even a century. But that doesn't mean plant longevity isn't on the minds of builders and operators. Historically, the focus has been on producing as much ethanol as possible揺ere and now. However, market developments, and the rising cost of oil, appear to indicate that ethanol is truly here for the long haul. Therefore, the once arbitrary question"How long will these plants run?"揺as become relevant to investors.

Most experts suggest dry-mill fuel ethanol facilities should have between 30 and 60 years of "useful" life expectancy. Broin Management COO Jeff Lautt says he generally agrees with that broad guestimate, but he tells EPM that ethanol plant longevity is a difficult thing to gauge. However, he explains, with the ethanol industry reaching its 30-year milestone, the low end of that range seems too conservative. "Thirty is on the short end from our perspective," Lautt says. "Beyond is possible. There are several things we look at as critical to the success all the way along."

Of those items, plant quality is foremost. Maintenance and adaptability aren't far behind. Complying with manufacturers recommendations may simply be the key to extending the life of any ethanol facility. "If you follow those manufacturers' recommendations, we think they'll last 50 years plus," says Fagen Inc.'s Steve Core.

Better materials, maintenance

Corrosion, breakdowns and natural degradation are the adversaries of any industrial structure. Despite utilizing steel and concrete, any structure will face these issues over time. The ethanol industry is no exception.

Randy Doyal has seen time's effects on two industry mainstays. He got his start in commercial ethanol production at the Portales, N.M., plant now operated by Abengoa Bioenergy. The 30 MMgy facility began production in 1985.

Doyal is now with 36 MMgy Al-Corn Clean Fuels in Claremont, Minn. That facility got its start in May 1996. Initially constructed with carbon steel fermentors, the plant is now in the process of installing stainless steel fermentors, according to Doyal. It's just the natural evolution of extending the plant's life.

The first line of next-generation dry-grind ethanol plants was built with mild steel components, Core says. In 10 or 15 years, those components will need to be replaced entirely. Those components are now being replaced with stainless steel.
However, despite carrying a life expectancy of 100-plus years, even stainless steel has its faults. Over time預nd especially with repeated cycles of heat and cold葉he metal expands and contracts, causing broken welds and stress fractures. Chlorinated water can also cause corrosion.

While grain handling systems typically show premature signs of wear, it's clear that even the most durable materials require maintenance and replacement. That is why much of an ethanol facility is designed to be easily replaced and geared toward simple maintenance.

Maintenance always the key

It all comes back to religiously sticking with a maintenance program. Industry experts say the lifespan of equipment, tanks and piping in an ethanol plant doesn't necessarily depend on its composition or purpose. As long as the operator is aware of its capabilities, the life of an ethanol facility should last as long as the life of the industry itself.

Of course, cost becomes an issue. An advantage with an older facility is not having to carry a debt load. "You don't have to worry about paying for all the top-of-the-line technology," Doyal says. "It's a proven process."

Naturally, the older the facility, the more time spent on maintenance and the more extensive the maintenance plans tend to be. The cost of keeping a plant in operation熔r overhauling entire sections of a facility揚ets higher with age. However, facilities such as the Portales plant have made the changes to keep up with new producers. "You learn from your history," Doyal says. "Now is the time to start planning ahead."

Core said Fagen Inc. builds plants and incorporates an aggressive maintenance program based on the manufacturer's specifications for equipment. Work orders are then produced to maintain or replace that equipment. "We hope to do as much as we can to prevent shutdowns," Core says.

This brings up another point. Is downtime necessarily a bad thing? "Our downtime today is significantly less (than compared with other similar industries)," Lautt explains. "Is that going to last forever? Should there be more downtime to add to longevity? The holistic view is the competing economic view of short-term gain and long-term benefit."

If extended downtime is part of the maintenance plan, it appears to make sense to stick to it even if market conditions make it appealing to stay on line. "The key is to be dedicated to that program," Lautt says. "Longevity is designed up front. A lot of new technology has changed in the last 10 or 20 years in the industry. Efficiency levels and technology are completely different than it was a decade ago. There must be a flexible design for future technology. You have to have a plant that is adaptable."

Adapting to the changes

There isn't an ethanol plant around today that is afraid to make minor changes in the plant in the goal of efficiency. "The age of the facility is really not much of an issue," Doyal says. "It's the ability to adapt to technology as it changes. Those that can't change will be shuttered."

With at least 11 dry-grind ethanol plants either in or approaching their 20th year of production, it becomes more difficult to stay competitive with fresh-off-the-line plants built in the past few years. Plant designers make sure to keep new facilities flexible. And some are able to teach an old dog new tricks. "We have some of the oldest plants in the industry," Lautt says. "We also have new plants with the latest in technology. The things that we have learned from plants built 10 years ago, we apply to new plants. That knowledge bank is a huge asset to those who have been in the industry for a while."

A look to similar industries may also allay fears of potential premature degradation. Maker's Mark and Anheuser Busch operate facilities that are decades older than anything in the fuel ethanol industry.

In fact, there may be other concerns before facility degradation. "Before life expectancy goes up, there will be a new technology," predicts Tom Branhan, CEO of Glacial Lakes Energy. "MTBE got replaced by ethanol. That could happen to us by hydrogen or something else in 10 years or 40 years."

In the meantime, the ethanol industry keeps moving along. "As long as you continue to have the ability and financial wherewithal to make adaptations in technology, plants that were built 20 years ago will continue to operate side-by-side as long as the demand is there and rewards are out there," Doyal says. "You continue to reinvest in yourself and reinvent yourself."

Dave Nilles is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 373-0636.