Stay Warm, Breathe Easy With Homegrown Energy in Illinois
The pilot plant at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) in Edwardsville can be viewed as a microcosm in more ways than one.
Located on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, the NCERC’s 24,000-square-foot research and training facility equals a 1/250th scale ethanol production plant. Its design replicates the function of a typical 50-million-gallon commercial ethanol plant. In fact, the pilot plant can accomplish every process that occurs from grinding the corn through distillation into ethanol and distillers grain (a byproduct used as livestock feed).
“Every bit of that can be done in our building,” says John Caupert, director of NCERC. “If you are an ethanol plant process operator and you can run a process control system to operate our pilot plant, then you can operate the same system in a 50-million-gallon plant. This creates tremendous opportunities for applied, hands-on learning.”
In addition to its representation on an operational level, the pilot plant can be considered as a smaller-scale economic impact of the ethanol industry.
As of summer 2014, 600 people had been trained at the facility. The biofuels industry directly employs 93 percent of them. An additional 63 students completed internships at the pilot plant with 59 of those now working in the industry.
“We did these things because the biofuel industry today employs over 70,000 people in direct biofuels positions,” says Caupert, a leading ethanol expert who has testified before Congress on the issue of workforce needs in the bioeconomy.
When you take into account all those indirect jobs, the industry employs more than 500,000 people. These jobs create over $40 billion a year in gross revenue.
“It’s a very strong, very robust industry from a revenue generation standpoint but also from an employment standpoint.”
Powering the Future
And at the heart of it lies Illinois, not only through ethanol and biodiesel made from soybean oil, but other types of homegrown energy such as wind power and methane-generated electricity produced from animal waste.
The renewable energy sector in the state – as well as across the nation – has especially accelerated in the last decade or so. The NCERC, for instance, began operating in 2003 with clients that were primarily startup companies backed by venture capitalists.
“That has changed dramatically,” Caupert says. “Today, the private sector industry includes household names.”
A similar story comes from the biodiesel industry, says Darryl Brinkmann, a farmer near Carlyle. Brinkmann served on the Illinois Soybean Association board when it first investigated the potential for using soybean oil for fuel in the late 1990s. Biodiesel, then called soy diesel, faced several issues at the time, including how it would function in engines, storage of the oil and what would become of it over time.
“We needed to conduct a lot of research, and we had to get public acceptance of it,” says Brinkmann, who later served as chairman of the National Biodiesel Board (NBB). “Each step of the way we ran across a lot of challenges.
“Over time, it went from a group of farmers to where industry people became involved, and all of a sudden they began producing the biodiesel.”
The future of biodiesel looks promising, which could benefit Illinois soybean farmers and Illinois motorists. While diesel powered only 3 percent of American automobiles as of 2013, the NBB estimates that percentage will climb to 10 to 15 percent by 2025. And by 2020, estimates show diesel fuel will surpass gasoline as the leading global transportation fuel.
“It has come a very long way and changed quite a bit,” Brinkmann says. “There’s still work to be done and so much potential for it. When you think of all the trouble spots in the world, and all the energy produced as far as [crude] oil, we don’t have those problems with [bio]diesel or ethanol. We produce them in this country, and we use them here.”
Blowing in the Wind
Illinois also stands at the forefront of wind energy, especially at the Twin Groves Wind Farm in McLean County. A subsidiary of one of the Houston-based EDP Renewables North America, Twin Groves went into operation with its first tract of 120 turbines in 2007 and a second one of equal numbers in 2008.
The 240 turbines have an installed capacity of 396 megawatts, enough clean energy to power and warm approximately 109,000 average Illinois homes.
“Illinois is a great place for wind,” says Jeremy High, senior operations manager for Twin Groves. “We have great people for building and maintaining the projects from all the different sub-industries. It’s a very good state to be a manager for wind because we have great workers.”
Twin Groves partners with about 130 landowners, mostly corn and soybean farmers who have opened up just more than an acre for each turbine. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” High says.
Wind energy produces one of the cleanest forms of energy, and, of course, the source never ends.
“We use a natural resource where if we don’t have turbines in the air generating electricity, it’s not being used. So, we’re using something already there and not going away.”