The ethanol plant that’s closest to Des Moines is drawing lots of attention from politicians.

The Lincolnway Energy plant sits on old U.S. Highway 30 between Nevada and Ames, just a few miles from Interstate-35 and less than an hour’s drive from Des Moines. Just this past week, three out-of-state politicians visited the plant as a means of publicly showing their support of the ethanol industry.

“It never ends,” said Lars Dunn, the plant’s manager. “Senator McCain was here yesterday…It seems like a week ago already.” On Thursday afternoon, Dunn shepherded U.S. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle through the plant. “That’s my title now, instead of plant manager, it’s tour guide,” Dunn said. “I feel like this is Disneyland or something.”

Dunn begins each tour by saying that making ethanol is just like making beer. “Same as Anheuser Busch or Miller, we’re making beer. It’s the same terminology, a lot of the same equipment, even the same organisms — yeast, the same kind of enzymes,” Dunn said. “The main difference is we’re trying to do it as quickly as possible and, of course, we don’t care what it tastes like. We’re after the ethanol.”

The product doesn’t taste good at all, according to Dunn, who said it’s because they’re not adding hops like a beer-maker would.

The Nevada ethanol plant was under construction for a year and a half, and went on-line in May. It is one of two ethanol plants in Iowa that is powered by coal and not natural gas. “We have people here from other plants who are training in how to run their coal-fired plants. There’s going to be three or four in the Midwest, probably by the end of next year,” Dunn said.

Lincolnway Energy hopes to build and expand their current facility and it will be powered by coal, too. He estimates they pay, today, about one-third as much to fuel their plant compared to plants that run on natural gas. In the winter, Dunn estimates they’ll pay as much as one-eighth of what a natural gas-fired plant will pay for their power. “The reason the plant is located here is because we’re on the main, east/west Union Pacific rail line,” he said. “That gives us a freight advantage as well, so this is why we’re one of the low-cost ethanol producers in the United States.”

The plant not only sells the ethanol, but the byproduct left behind — a distiller’s grain that in other plants is sold, very wet, to area livestock producers but it has to be fed quickly or it will rot. Because of the proximity to the railroad, the Nevada plant dries that distiller’s grain. It has a much longer shelf-life and gets shipped primarily to dairy farms in Idaho and other western states.

The plant also collects the fly ash when the coal is burned and gives it away. “It’s used as a binding agent…as a filler in concrete and paving,” he said. “We’re happy to take that away so it doesn’t have to be landfilled. (It) saves us some money that way.”

The plant was designed to produce about 50-million gallons of ethanol each year, but the plant manager says things are running so smoothly that the plant output is actually exceeding that by about five-million gallons.