For Omaha-based ethanol producer Green Plains, a gamble made eight years ago on becoming a supplier of feed to fish farms might be on the cusp of paying off.
The No. 2 ethanol producer in the country started off with trying to grow algae in reactors using recycled heat, water and carbon dioxide from its ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa.
Green Plains increased its ownership in the algae joint-venture to 35 percent over the next couple of years, but not much came of it for some time. The algae business merited a one-sentence description in the 2012 annual report.
Fast forward to today, and the idea of supplying the world’s fish farms with feed derived from the algae experiments seems closer than ever. And it is getting plenty of attention inside the company, with the Green Plains ownership stake in the joint-venture now up to almost 90 percent.
“We hope to make significant progress in commercializing our algae production in 2018 as a bigger part of our protein strategy,” Green Plains Chief Executive Todd Becker told investors on the quarterly conference call last week. “We have applied for the patent, the provisional, but we believe we’ll gain the full patent on it and it could be rolled out across a lot of our plants.”
Production has been moved to the Green Plains plant in York, Nebraska, acquired in 2016 in bankruptcy from Spain-based biofuel producer Abengoa. The York plant had a large-scale fermentation installation that fit well with the needs of the algae business.
Now, fish farms usually use a fish meal made up of small and bony fish for which there is no demand for human consumption. But the demand from their aquatic brothers and sisters is high. The World Bank estimates that 62 percent of fish for human consumption will come from aquaculture by 2030, dominated by tilapia, carp and catfish. Global tilapia production alone is expected to almost double to 7.3 million tons a year by 2030.
Green Plains says it has a strong advantage as demonstrated in feeding trials currently underway.
“Feed trial results are exceeding expectation, with a 13 percent growth advantage,” Becker said. “Or, in other words, the fish in the trial ate the same amount of the feed as the control group, but gained 13 percent more with our algae inclusion in their feed.”
Becker told investors and analysts last week the algae business, like others the company has developed, is intended to make earnings more predictable, because they fluctuate widely with ethanol production, whose profitability is tied to global commodities price action involving corn, gasoline and oil.
Green Plains, with 17 plants nationwide producing ethanol, has expanded in recent years to related businesses such as feeding its own herds of cattle with leftovers from ethanol production, refining corn oil and making vinegar, whose main feedstock is ethanol.
“We see this as a way to reduce earnings volatility, much like corn oil did in the past,” Becker said.