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Guest columnists

Five years and still going strong

Some said it would never open. It would never produce a gallon of energy. It would never employ the people it would take to run such a plant. It would never affect grain prices the way it was predicted. It was the wrong location. The wrong time. They’d never find enough investors.

Even when it did open, they said it would never make a dime.

Patriot Renewable Fuels LLC taught those Doubting Thomases a lot in the first five years since it starting producing grain ethanol from corn in a field just east of Annawan along Interstate 80. The group raised millions of dollars, borrowed millions of dollars and today, that debt load keeps falling.

But the plant has kept up with the times, made high tech innovations that have made it one of the most efficient ethanol plants in the country; built a rail system that was second to none; and a became a plant that innovated and invested in itself to now produce corn oil for bio-diesel. Patriot continues to study innovating new ways to make the plant even more efficient.

It hasn’t always been pretty. Last year’s withered corn crop hurt. It also stung when the government pulled a 50-cent per gallon bonus for big oil blenders, creating a higher price for E-85, a fuel with 85 percent ethanol content. But Patriot managed through those tough times.

The independent plant today employs more than 60, and like a child growing into adulthood, it’s getting better, smarter and more efficient with age. Since it’s opening in August 2008, a total of 200 million bushels of corn have been processed through the plant – producing 550 million gallons of ethanol fuel that has helped reduce America’s dependency on foreign oil.

The plant has contributed more than $18 million in direct and related industry jobs and has given local farmers new and important global markets for not only their corn, but things like dried distiller’s grain (DDGs), a high-quality feed that has amounted to 320,000 tons being shipped to Asia. It’s helped the rail business – with 18,000 rail cars full of ethanol going to markets in America and sometimes beyond. It’s helped local trucking businesses, hauling in approximately 180 truckloads of field corn a day, plus hauling away hundreds of loads of DDGs per week..

It’s an amazing story of determination and the idea of just a few people who visited existing plants in northern Illinois and just over the Wisconsin border as they looked at the giant local corn crop that was getting just $2.80 a bushel at the time. It was then they realized they needed to put together a feasibility study, which was funded by the county. The founders asked questions like: Why are we banging our heads against the wall in trying to attract industry to Henry County when we could create our own? Founders questioned the fact there were ethanol plants rising all over Iowa – so why not Illinois as well?

Today, Iowa and Illinois need to be pacesetters in leading America toward even more usage of ethanol. Getting big government to believe 15 percent — rather than the present 10 percent — ethanol in our gasoline has been delayed time and time again in Washington, despite study after study that proves adding another 5 percent won’t affect engines. Each state can approve putting 15 percent of corn ethanol in your vehicle by simply voting in the new standard. Months down the road, it will prove to the rest of the country 15 percent ethanol is a great thing for America. But the big oil companies don’t like the fact the ethanol industry has taken 10 percent of their business already, so they fight it and legislators stall.

What can you do about it? Call your congressmen and senators. Talk to them about making this happen in at least Illinois. It’s actually one of the only really good things Illinois may have going for it, plus it will continue to help the local rural economy.

Patriot Renewable Fuels rose from a simple idea. Today, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year, it’s an industry that not only helps the local economy, but aids the environment by creating more fuels that burn cleaner. To this day, Patriot has contributed more than $1.2 billion to the nation’s reduction in its dependence on foreign oil. That’s a pretty significant number.

This month, Patriot Renewable Fuels celebrates five years of existence since creating it’s first gallon. Five years of profits. Five years of creating a better life for grain farmers and other related businesses. It’s a story of great achievement, sound accomplishment and re-educating ourselves about an awakened industry that had been around for more than a century. It was accomplished through great leadership, 200 investors that had faith it would work and something called determination. It’s one of the Midwest’s great success stories and those who were involved from the beginning should be proud.

But this is no time to simply toast and rest on success. There still is work to be done, and the plant will continue to grow, innovate and help the local economy – if we continue to rally behind it, promote it and be an advocate for use of more ethanol.

Tim Evans is the former publisher of the Geneseo Republic when the Patriot Renewable Fuels plant became reality. He is presently the general manager for the News-Gazette Community Newspapers based in Rantoul, a subsidiary of The News-Gazette in Champaign-Urbana.

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