Staying Power

By Luke Geiver

Adkins Energy was formed in 2002 to provide value to local corn producers. Although its origin may not sound unique to the ethanol industry, the plant’s 20-plus year run proves otherwise. Ethanol Producer Magazine caught up with the team in late July to talk about about the evolution of Adkins and how the plant has transformed in size, scope and direction. Much has changed at the Lena, Illinois, biorefinery, but as you’ll hear from one of the company’s original employees, its ability to thrive over two decades is not only about what has changed, but what hasn’t.

How It Started, How It’s Going

Jason Townsend was an original employee of Adkins. He started as a floating operator right out of college before moving into a lab manager role. After that, he became a production supervisor and then plant manager. As of last year, Townsend’s title has been assistant general manager. He didn’t plan to work at the plant for decades or build a dedicated career in ethanol, but the opportunity to get in on the ground floor—and then advance—was always too great to pass up, he says. Along with nine others, he’s been there from the start. Today, the plant employs roughly 47 to 50 people. Townsend could give you names and titles of everyone if you ask. For the small Illinois town closest to the plant, the ethanol facility offers a great employment opportunity, he says.

The plant runs four teams with three operators and a shift supervisor. There are two floating positions. Approximately 23 team members work on the production side with the remaining staff focused on lab operations, management, administrative and sales.

The workforce breakdown is important because it relates, in no small part, to the Adkins story, according to Townsend. The success of their operation has always been about the people that work there. And for the crew from Lena, it has meant keeping employees for as long as possible.

Despite all the changes at the plant over the years, the Adkins team has remained largely in tact. The culture of innovation, efficiency and safety has stayed constant, too. That, along with consistent operations, is a direct result of low turnover. Townsend is proud of that, pointing out multiple times during his interview with EPM that employee longevity is a big part of the Adkins success story. “We’ve always had a great team, and everyone seems to want to stay around,” he says.

Check out the socials for Adkins and it’s clear there is an established culture. Work there and your birthday is celebrated. Have a student eligible for a scholarship? Don’t forget what Adkins offers. They’ve given out scholarships for several years based on the ability of applicants to explain the benefits of ethanol. Looking for an organization for community involvement? Adkins is probably already involved in some way. The plant specifically lists multiple regional organizations that it participates in on its website. There is proof everywhere that Townsend’s talking point about the plant’s people is a real thing.

There is a lot to manage at the facility. What started as an ICM-engineered plant—designed nearly identical to the original ICM Kansas plant—has morphed. Today, the Adkins has expanded ethanol production to 60 MMgy, along with more than 100,000 annual tons of DDGS and another 100,000 tons of wet distillers grains. In 2014, the plant added a biodiesel production operation that pumps out more than 2.5 MMgy. The biodiesel is made from distillers corn oil, roughly 1.5 million gallons.

Adkins has become a modern biorefinery in many ways, Townsend believes, and it’s just getting started. Getting to this point took a lot of work, however. Expansions or additions to the plant have included adding two additional fermenters, performing pump upgrades, expanding the cooling tower, adding a steam turbine to capture some of the wasted energy and more. A ring dryer was added to help with drying and to expand the options for future coproducts. The plant has always been able to generate all of its electricity. The original design included a built-in CHP system.

The plant’s current enhancements include work on an ICM Selective Milling Technology upgrade to improve corn oil and ethanol yield. They are also replacing the plant’s 20-year-old centrifuges to gain more flexibility and reduce maintenance expenses.

“We’ve always tried to stay as consistent as possible operationally while also staying focused on minimizing our expenses,” Townsend says. “We try to operate as efficiently as possible.”

Bill Howell, the current GM of the plant, has been with Adkins for the past eight months. Howell returned to the biofuels industry after previously working with Shell, BASF, and POET (he was also a jet pilot). Howell says what stood out about the Adkins facility was the fine shape it was in relative to its age.

“What impressed me from the beginning about Adkins was how clean it was,” he says. “They have spent the money to keep the plant up.”

Although they might work smart at Adkins, that doesn’t mean they don’t work hard. On most days, Townsend starts reviewing important information before he ever makes it to the office. He checks the previous day’s production level, the volume of bushels ground, ethanol produced and energy consumed via emailed reports. “Then, I’m here for a shift change to review the operations teams and make a plan for what is [happening] during the day or the week,” he says.

After that he checks in with the office and maintenance teams to make sure there is clear communication between all parties. Additional meetings fill in his time when he’s not walking the plant. “I like to get to all parts of the plant during the day,” he says.

Unique In Illinois

Adkins energy is unique to the ethanol industry for many reasons. The plant is one of the few owned by a local co-op. Pearl City Elevator, a local agricultural cooperative, helped form Adkins Energy LLC in 2002 and today has a majority interest in the plant.

Adkins Energy LLC is owned by approximately 275 general members of the former Adkins Energy Cooperative and PCE. Adkins Energy shares are available to the public, and any area producer can sell grain to Adkins Energy through PCE.

The ethanol plant is co-located with a biodiesel production facility. The plant distills its own corn oil into a pure, colorless product that can be used in any weather. The majority of the biodiesel is purchased and sold by local ag retailers. WB Services of Kansas helped bring the 8,500 square foot plant into production.

In 2020 during the pandemic, Adkins partnered with Lena Brewing Company to produce ethanol-based FDA-approved hand sanitizer. The product was used to supply the greater Chicago area.

Recently, Adkins has been exploring the option of carbon capture for the production of methanol. While many ethanol producers are aligning with carbon pipeline systems or exploring onsite sequestration efforts, Adkins is looking at a different alternative. Working with CapCO2 and the New York firm’s technology, the group is determining if a CO2 capture system that ultimately creates green methanol could be viable in Lena.

Real Carbon Tech, the technology developer that CapCO2 is basing its system on, has created a single-phase process that takes readily available flue gas capture technology and uses it in a methanol conversion process the company says is different than those used at fossil fuel-based operations that rely on the production of syngas. In some cases, the system can be mobile and housed in a standard shipping container. The product is popular with several major maritime shipping operations because of its properties. Green methanol is liquid at room temperature, making it less costly to store and transport than gaseous fuels. It also has the lowest carbon footprint of all liquid fuels.

Currently, Adkins is performing a feasibility study and running the financials on the CO2 project. Howell is hopeful of the results and knows that others from industry are watching and waiting. Adkins is one of only a few ethanol plants evaluating a CO2 to methanol project. If an underground injection option was available or a pipeline in the near-term, Howell says the plant might have explored those options in addition, but those weren’t even an option.

The CO2 tech will collect flue gas from the fermenters and redirect it. The resulting single-phase process creates hydrogen, oxygen and methanol. The hydrogen is reused to create the methanol, and the oxygen can also be sold as a byproduct.

“There are a lot of people hoping that we are successful,” he says.

Like its operational strategies, Adkins is consistent in how it approaches new technology. Townsend says it starts with the operations team. Because the team is so good, there is time to explore or consider new technology. The board is supportive of upgrades and to date, Adkins has found success by adding or altering technology at the plant.

“We always try to stay informed on new technologies and do our research,” he says.

With yeasts or enzymes, they don’t like to be the first plant to run it commercially. And, they want to be confident in the lab data. “We take it fairly slow on that process,” he adds.

With new process equipment, they really work to understand how something can be integrated into the current infrastructure. The team will travel to other plants to look at systems in action and if it is a brand new technology, the Adkins team is willing to let vendors set up or run trials onsite at the plant.

“We are always looking at new technology,” Townsend says. “Always.”

Navigating the Industry for 20-Plus Years

Running a profitable biorefinery in Lena hasn’t always been easy, Townsend admits. “We have seen our fair share of tough ethanol margins over the years,” he says. One year, they had to slow down production to wait for corn to come in for the next year. Covid was a unique challenge. “It seems like the ethanol industry always finds a way to correct itself though,” Townsend says.

Part of the industry’s ability to adapt comes from the new products and strategies hitting the market. “I’ve been surprised at how fast things change,” he says.

Like most ethanol producers in 2023, Townsend and team are following the opportunities that are linked to sustainable aviation fuel. That opportunity, they believe, is huge. But part of that opportunity comes from a plant’s ability to lower its carbon intensity (CI) score. Adkins is highly focused on its CI score so it can participate in the low carbon market. The team is also looking at efficiency improvements and potentially even more ethanol production increases.

“I still think that diversification will be important to the longer-term play,” Townsend says.

Through years of change and myriad projects and upgrades at the plant, the team believes in keeping everyone informed and up to speed. There shouldn’t be surprises, Townsend says. Change is going to happen, he adds. And, for a plant that just celebrated its billionth gallon of ethanol produced this May, it’s clear that things certainly have changed at the northern Illinois plant. As the success of Adkins shows, change can be a good thing, Howell adds.

“Coming back into the biofuels space,” he says, “it’s as if we have stepped into the rebirth of biofuels. It’s very exciting.”

*Originally featured in Ethanol Producer Magazine.