$1 billion zero-emissions hydrocarbon plant planned for Lake Preston will produce jet fuel

Kerry Kulkarni
Watertown Public Opinion

The move toward renewable, low-carbon fuel options seems to have found a promising future in Kingsbury County.

While the state has no crude oil reserves, it has plenty of corn. And corn can be converted into renewable fuel that can help power the world.

That's why a company called Gevo is planning a $1 billion project near Lake Preston. Gevo is a Colorado-based renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company.

Gevo plant will produce jet fuel

The company has purchased 245 acres of land near Lake Preston where it plans to build what it calls a Net-Zero 1 plant, which will produce jet fuel.

An ethanol distillery will be accompanied by a plant that can turn ethanol into jet fuel, said Pat Gruber, CEO of Gevo, Inc. The Net-Zero 1 plant will produce energy-dense liquid hydrocarbon. To make liquid hydrocarbon, Gevo needs access to lots of corn. Surrounded by corn growers, Lake Preston is an ideal place to build Gevo’s first Net-Zero 1 plant, he said.

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Pat Gruber, CEO of Gevo, Inc.

“Ethanol has two carbons. Jet fuel has 12. We have to get from two carbons to 12, and we perform the chemical steps to do it,” he said.

The plant will produce 54 million gallons of jet fuel a year using 37 million bushels of corn, Gruber said.

Bigger future plans for hydrocarbon

But Gevo's plans for hydrocarbon in the future are much bigger, he said. With the shift toward electric vehicles comes the need for more power without creating greenhouse gases, and corn could be the solution. 

“The electric vehicle people are my friends because they have the same problem I do. Where are they going to get their renewable energy? That’s what they need, and I’m bringing it,” Gruber said.

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Although there are ethanol plants in the region, Gevo’s ultimate goal of zero emissions requires the distiller to be on site, Gruber said.

“If you are transporting ethanol from somewhere else, you’re starting with a higher carbon score,” he said. 

But that doesn’t mean Gevo won’t buy from neighboring ethanol facilities as the demand for hydrocarbon grows. And with markets like California and Europe thirsty for green energy, demand is expected to increase.

Other products that could eventually be produced at the Lake Preston plant include gasoline, diesel and natural gas, depending on demand, but it is starting with jet fuel, Gruber said,

Net-Zero 1 means zero emissions 

To truly become an environmentally conscious energy supplier, Gevo needs a way to get its fuels to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The scorecard used on greenhouse emissions begins in the feedstock, corn in this instance, and is measured through the lifecycle of the fuel from the field to combustion.

With its zero-emissions goal beginning in the field, South Dakota is a logical home for the plant, Gruber said.

“The corn in this area of South Dakota has a very low carbon footprint. The farmers in the area do an outstanding job producing corn with a low carbon score,” he said.

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Regenerative agriculture is a key factor. That's when farmers use land-management practices, including no till, low till and cover crops. Gevo needs access to feedstock produced by corn growers actively practicing regenerative agriculture, and the company is willing to pay a premium for that corn, Gruber said.

“People treat agriculture like it’s done evolving, that it’s never going to improve again, and that’s wrong,” he said.

Project will also include a wind farm

Another essential piece to achieve zero emissions is powering the plant with a low-carbon energy source. To achieve this, Gevo will partner with Juhl Energy to build as many as 20 wind turbines 10 to 14 miles northeast of the Net-Zero 1 plant. 

“We are very excited about Gevo’s plans and being part of this project,” said Juhl Energy President Clay Norrbom. “We’ve appreciated the community in terms of the support for the Gevo plant and the wind farm. It’s nice to feel welcomed into the community.”

The wind farm will investment more than $100 million on top of the Gevo plant, Norrbom said.

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Juhl has worked diligently to ensure that all safety precautions are met by being mindful of distances away from homes so that noise and shadows are not a nuisance, he said.

The two companies say they have been working to inform the community about the project and how wind energy plays an integral part in development of the plant. The turbines will supply energy solely to Gevo and are necessary for the plant’s zero emissions goal. Without wind, the Net-Zero 1 plant cannot exist, they say.

'The goal to be good neighbors'

“We hope the Gevo plant is there for at least 50 years, and we have the goal to be good neighbors to the community for a long time,” Norrbom said.

Developing relationships with the contracted landowners has been a top priority for Juhl. Norrbom said the company has worked with landowners to provide beneficial contracts to secure property to build the turbines.

The wind farm will also benefit Lake Preston and the neighboring city of Arlington. 

“There will be 10 wind turbines in the Arlington School District, and the other 10 in Lake Preston School District. That brings in quite a bit of tax revenue that will go right to our schools,” said Lake Preston Mayor Andy Wienk.

An exciting future for Lake Preston 

The land that will be home to Gevo’s Net-Zero 1 plant was previously zoned for Rembrandt Foods to build a cage-free egg production facility, Wienk said. When that project did not come through, it left an opening in Lake Preston’s commercial development. 

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“Everyone I’ve talked with is pretty excited about this and what opportunities it will bring into Lake Preston,” he said.

Lake Preston has a population of 587 and is looking forward to the creation of roughly 80 jobs that could lead to more development.

“The development board has started looking for areas to develop new housing so we can capture as many employees as we can once Gevo gets up and going. Our Main Street businesses are very excited about the extra people that this development will be bringing into town, during construction and after it,” Wienk said. 

The Net-Zero 1 plant along with the wind farm are expected to finish construction and be in operation by mid-2024. It's not yet known when construction will begin.