The first (and POET’s only) ethanol plant in Michigan may differ somewhat from its peers, but it’s making a big difference in the state’s economically stressed “Thumb” region.
Mention “Michigan” to most people, and they’re more likely to conjure up images of automobiles, Great Lakes, lighthouses or golf courses than corn fields. Truth is, however, Michigan is officially in the Corn Belt – but not by much.
“Compared to its surrounding neighbors, Michigan is a very low corn-producing state,” says Dave Gloer, General Manager of POET’s biorefinery in Caro. “Among the Corn Belt states, we’re pretty close to the bottom of the list.”
So why then, of all places, did POET choose to build the first ethanol plant in the state here?
“There was a spot in Michigan – not the whole state, but in the ‘Thumb’ area – that had kind of a unique, niche feel to it,” says Larry Ward, POET Senior Vice President of Project Development. “That area had a very good supply of corn, a very wide basis and most of their corn was shipped out of the area. There were also some very good markets for ethanol, particularly in the Detroit marketplace, with more possibilities for other eastern markets. The Caro site complemented our overall development objectives very well.”
POET Biorefining – Caro began grinding corn to annually produce a nameplate capacity of 45 million gallons (now 54 million gallons) of ethanol in November of 2002. Its circumstances may be somewhat outside the norm for other POET plants in somewhat less picturesque, but more agronomically gifted states. But the Caro facility has nevertheless distinguished itself as a unique and valued member of the POET family, while providing economic benefit to an area seriously impacted by a slumping auto industry.
Bringing Ethanol to “the Thumb”
The French adventurers who first explored the area around Caro in the early 1700s called it “Le Pays Plat,” meaning “the flat country.” Their English-speaking counterparts who followed just called it “the Thumb.”
The “Thumb” refers to that part of east-central Lower Michigan that resembles the thumb on one’s right hand when viewing it from the palm side. The Thumb is bounded by Port Huron at its southernmost point, by Lake Huron on the east and is separated from the rest of the “hand” by Saginaw Bay.
Whatever one calls the region, there’s a consensus that it’s darn good farm land.
“It’s phenomenal farm ground,” says Gloer. “Very fertile, high-quality soil. At one time (thousands of years ago) it was actually part of the bottom of Lake Huron.”
At the same time POET was looking into the potential of the area as the possible site for the company’s fourteenth biorefinery, another group was thinking along the same lines, but from a different perspective.
“We had a group named the Michigan Corn Processors, which was made up of 130 farmers,” recalls Don Morse, an area farmer and later a POET board member. “We’d been working for over three years to get a value-added ethanol plant going.”
At some point during those three years, members of the group heard a presentation from Jeff Broin and the two groups quickly discovered they shared common goals and ideas.
“Their process paralleled ours, and we ended up coming together,” says Morse.
But that’s not to say that everything went smoothly from that point on. When an ethanol plant is contemplating coming to a state or area for the first time, people can sometimes be apprehensive.
Caro was not the first site in the area considered by the POET group. I
nitially another location had been identified, but ran into stiff resistance from some who were wary of the new plant. However, POET soon found another community that saw things differently.
“Our experience at Caro was quite the contrary to the first one,” recalls Ward. “They had a strong economic development group there, and were very welcoming. They worked very hard to recruit us, and were very enabling.”
Unique in the POET Family
A look at the map of POET biorefineries quickly reveals the obvious – the Caro plant is easily the most remote of the company’s 27 biorefineries compared to its sister facilities, which tend to be built somewhat in clusters within their respective states.
“We are pretty isolated, but it hasn’t been a big problem,” states Gloer. “If we have a problem, we just pick up the phone to Sioux Falls and get an immediate response.”
The Caro facility has been aggressive with tech improvements, adding BPX™ (fermentation without cooking) in 2005, Total Water Recovery™ (eliminates all water discharge from the plant) in 2009, and is currently in the process of adding a number of upgrades, one of which will make Caro the first POET plant to add “Waste Heat Recovery.” When completed, this addition will capture heat coming off the dryers and thermal oxidizer, and reuse it for plant operations for an annual savings of up to $1 million per year. The upgrade will also include additional water recovery.
Other upgrades in efficiency include a complete upgrade of the computerized control system for the plant, a new system called a “double effect evaporator” to further increase efficiency, and beautifying the exterior grounds of the plant.
These efficiencies, plus an extremely stable and capable work force, and market advantages resulting from its location, makes Caro a successful facility. It is also one of POET’s safest, having gone six years without a lost-time accident, and is a perennial and respected favorite of state legislators wanting to tour one of Michigan’s five ethanol plants.
Now in its eighth year, POET Biorefining – Caro has not only met, but exceeded the expectations key players had for it in the early going.
“It’s been a definite economic benefit,” says Jim McLoskey, Executive Director of the Tuscola County Economic Development Corporation. “The auto industry has been hit hard in this area, but thanks to POET and the good spinoff benefits, we’ve not been as negatively impacted as some of our neighboring counties. They also created more jobs (45 versus 38) than they promised – that’s very refreshing and reassuring when a company actually exceeds its promises.”
McLoskey added that partly as a result of POET coming to Caro, additional businesses have been attracted to Caro’s industrial park, and the local airport authority has been able to make needed improvements to the Tuscola Area Airport.
In addition to the economic benefits, POET Biorefining – Caro strives to be a good neighbor in the community, participating in a host of civic and community organizations and supporting local organizations like the Caro Fire Department and events like the Pumpkin Festival. For his part, Board Member Morse isn’t surprised at the results, economic or otherwise.
“When our farmer group was originally deciding on who we wanted to work with to bring an ethanol plant to the area, we interviewed all the major companies,” recalls Morse. “After we talked with the Broin family, we came to the conclusion that ‘these are the best guys we can do business with.’”
He continues, “As a producer, if not for ethanol, we’d have a quite a corn surplus. But while I like what POET brings locally, I also really appreciate how they go about doing their business in the U.S. and globally. They’ve definitely exceeded our expectations as growers and investors. It’s been a great ride.”
Living a Dream
When POET Biorefining – Caro General Manager Dave Gloer came on board three years ago he knew nothing about ethanol, but one thing he definitely did know – he was ready to do something different.
“I’d worked most of the previous 20 years in managerial positions in downtown Detroit, most recently as a consultant for the automotive industry,” says Gloer. “It was a very welcome change to get out of the big city.”
A big part of Gloer’s satisfaction with having made the switch is the work atmosphere at his new job.
“In all my years of working, I’ve never seen a work ethic like I’ve seen here,” explains Gloer. “A lot of our people have farm backgrounds – they were born working, think nothing about getting up at 4 a.m., then busting their tails all day until the job’s done. That’s been very enlightening.”
That’s not the whole satisfaction picture, howevera.
“My passion is hunting,” says Gloer, who is married and the father of two grown children. “If I’m not hunting, I’m getting ready to hunt. I’ve gone from downtown Detroit to small town Caro, where I have 40 acres and can hunt deer out of my back window. I’m living a dream.”
Tim Klinesmith, Operator
Tim Klinesmith was an original hire when POET Biorefining – Caro started making ethanol in 2002, and as an operator, sees the process through from start to finish.
“We operators do about everything around here except receiving the corn,” says Klinesmith. “We start with fermentation, then monitor all the temperatures and chemicals for the various processes, clear through to the distillation for the final product.”
Klinesmith states that his work is enjoyable, but also challenging.
“It really takes quite a lot of training initially, and there’s a big learning curve,” says Klinesmith. “Even after you get started, it still takes awhile before you truly understand it all.”
He adds that the job’s not for everyone, and sometimes can involve considerable pressure.
“Operators really need to be people who aren’t bothered much by the pressure,” he smiles.
Klinesmith also believes intensely in what he does for a living.
“I’m glad for what POET stands for and what their objectives are,” relates Klinesmith. “We need to get away from buying oil from countries that don’t like us and stop the flow of cash to those areas. To help make that happen, more people really need to get educated about ethanol.”
David Mattlin, Caro Fire Chief
Since the beginning, POET has worked hard at being a good neighbor in the Caro community. One organization the plant’s staff has developed a close relationship with is the Caro Fire Department.
“They co-sponsor our annual golf tourney, which helps a lot with our fundraising,” says David Mattlin, Caro Fire Chief. One result of the golf outing has been to enable the department to purchase items like “Jaws of Life,” which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
POET and the fire department also work closely on emergency training. At least twice each year they collaborate on training which is beneficial to both parties. A specialized form of that preparation is “confined space training,” which prepares staff from each organization to respond to crises like rescuing farmers trapped in a grain bin.
“The people at POET are a very proactive bunch,” says Mattlin, “a pleasure to work with. We’re very thankful they’re here in the community.”
Don Morse, POET Board Member
Don Morse, from Birch Run, Michigan, farms about 2,000 acres, including raising corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and seed corn. As a farmer, he appreciates what having a local ethanol plant has done for his operation.
“It’s created more competition in the marketplace, and has raised our price of corn,” says Morse.
When he puts on his board member cap, however, he has a message for his fellow corn growers.
“I really believe that farmers need to get behind organizations like POET and Growth Energy that are promoting ethanol,” says Morse. “After all, this is what we [farmers] do. If we don’t promote ourselves, there aren’t very many who will. Joining Growth Energy is a little like joining corn growers associations. When corn growers go to Washington with 35,000 members, that speaks a lot louder than if we had 500 members. I’d like to see farmers support these efforts to promote ethanol a little more.”