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Marquis: 2020 lock closures to be challenge for Illinois ethanol


NORMAL, Ill. — Marquis Energy, the largest dry-mill ethanol facility in the United States with a refining capacity of 1 million gallons daily, exports a majority of its ethanol via the Illinois River.

Beginning in 2008 in Hennepin, on the banks of the river with a capacity of 100 million gallons per year, entrepreneur Mark Marquis of Peoria grew his fledgling business literally from the bottom up and completing an expansion in 2015 that allows the company to purchase grain for ethanol from a large and growing segment of Illinois farmers.

This is why the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) honored Marquis Energy with its Ethanol Award during the ICGA annual meeting in Normal, prior to the Farm Assets Conference on Nov. 20.

Marquis is concerned, however, that plans to shut down six locks and dams on the Illinois River during the summer of 2020 will cause disruptions to his company’s export supply chain, potentially costing it a large loss in revenue, as well as expenses associated with rerouting ethanol deliveries from the plant.

“First, we are very appreciative of this award for ethanol producer of the year from the ICGA,” said Marquis, who also serves on the board of directors of Growth Energy, a nonprofit biofuel organization, and chairs its export committee. In addition, he serves on the Illinois Renewable Fuels Assoc. board, providing a strong political voice for Illinois ethanol.

“At Marquis Energy, we now process 400 million gallons of corn ethanol per year, provided by 500 truckloads of corn every day. We employ about 200 people, and we export about two-thirds of our ethanol and roughly 100 percent of our distillers grain,” he said.

“We are located in Putnam County, the smallest county in the state, and we draw a lot of corn from Bureau, LaSalle and Putnam (counties’) farmers – it comes from about a 50-mile radius. From that we process around 130 million bushels of corn per year.”

Marquis Energy’s strong ethanol export program will require a major overhaul for the business to remain profitable and continue to support area farmers and employees, once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers essentially shuts down the Illinois River system for needed lock and dam repairs in 2020, he fears.

“It’s a big logistical problem for us,” Marquis said. “We’ve been working on this since it was first announced that they were going to have to totally shut down the Peoria and LaGrange locks to rehab them. We have looked at a number of different ways, with different railroads, trucking and pipeline (options).

“We are looking at railing around those two locks and then getting back on the river, but we haven’t made any final decisions yet. When you make a million gallons a day of ethanol and 3,000 tons of distillers grains (DDGs) a day and ship it, that product has to go somewhere, and it’s going to be a big challenge.”

The challenge of moving Marquis Energy ethanol and DDGs at current rates of delivery will also prove to be expensive. “It will cut into our margins a lot because the river is a very cost-effective way to move tons of product, no matter the commodity.

“Closing the river for three or four months will make it more expensive to transport our products to where they need to go, so it will be a detriment to our profitability for a number of months,” he explained. “We are concerned about that.”

Marquis did say he is appreciative to the Corps for pledging to minimize the length of repair work and lock closures, with a goal of restoring full river transportation before the 2020 harvest. He is also appreciative the locks and dams will finally be receiving some long-needed rehabilitation.

“Those locks were built in the 1930s and really need upgrades. What is really needed are dual locks – new 1,200-foot locks alongside the older ones – so one can be opened up while upgrading the other. They have a couple of dual locks in the St. Louis area that really help relieve bottlenecks during maintenance,” he said.

These concerns were put aside during the morning of Nov. 20, when Marquis attended the ICGA annual meeting to receive his award. After, he accepted congratulations outside the room from several farmers and agriculture leaders.

“Marquis Energy has seen tremendous success in the ethanol industry in Illinois and has been an amazing partner as ICGA seeks to improve the regulatory climate for ethanol production and use,” said Aron Carlson, outgoing ICGA president.

“We are so pleased to welcome Mark Marquis here today as a representative and co-founder of such an unequivocal success and to thank him for his work selling ethanol, pioneering a successful ethanol exporting program and working with us to grow the industry.”