First-of-its-kind sustainable aviation fuel facility in the world positions South Dakota to build on biofuels success

A September groundbreaking marked the official start of South Dakota’s largest economic development project: a sustainable aviation fuel facility estimated at more than $1 billion to be built by Colorado-based Gevo Inc.

“It’s the first of its kind in the world,” said Steve Westra, commissioner of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

“That’s the piece I think people need to recognize. This company has a big, bold vision and has been really good to work with.”

Gevo selected the site for its project, called Net-Zero 1, after 18 months of due diligence, the company said.

The company aims to eliminate greenhouse gases from transportation fuels, including sustainable aviation fuel, also known as SAF, renewable gasoline and diesel fuel. It also has a development facility in Luverne, Minnesota.

“Lake Preston met the company’s criteria for a site, which needed to include the availability of low-carbon/sustainably grown corn, access to rail and local acceptance of wind energy usage,” said Heather Manuel, vice president of corporation communications.

“We want to get our ag community the highest value we can for their products before they leave the state, and that’s really where the Gevo project fit well,” he said.

The approach also is a perfect example of the way the biotechnology industry uniquely thrives in a state like South Dakota, said Joni Ekstrum, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.

“Bioscience exists to help us feed, fuel and heal the world, and Gevo’s project is an exciting example of what that looks like in our state,” she said. “Leveraging local agriculture to produce renewable fuels is exactly what we’re able to achieve in South Dakota, and we couldn’t be more encouraged that an operation like this saw that opportunity.”

Gevo plans to hire about 90 full-time employees, with 1,000 employed during construction.

“We will need engineers, plant operators, human resources, accounting, corn processing and other positions that will come with great benefit packages,” Manuel said. “Gevo is committed to creating opportunities in South Dakota and has already partnered with Lake Area Technical College to award Build Dakota Scholarships, four of which have already been awarded.”

The scholarship covers 100 percent of prior costs of tuition, books and tools, and upon completion of the program, individuals will have the opportunity for full-time employment with Gevo.

“Other outreach programs and workforce plans are in development,” Manuel added.

In addition to Gevo’s jobs, GOED estimates at least 300 permanent ancillary jobs will be coming as a result of the investment.

“These are all well-paying jobs,” Westra said. “We think there will be hundreds of jobs created on the backside of this project. And you’re going to see a lot of communities reap the benefits, from Arlington to Brookings and beyond, as we know people will commute for opportunities like these.”

Gevo trades on the Nasdaq under GEVO. Its mission is to transform renewable energy and carbon into energy-dense liquid hydrocarbons. The liquid hydrocarbons can be used for drop-in transportation fuels such as gasoline, jet fuel and diesel fuel that when burned have potential to yield net-zero greenhouse gas emissions when measured across the full life cycle of the products.

Gevo uses low-carbon, renewable resource-based carbohydrates as raw materials and is in what the company calls “an advanced state of developing renewable electricity and renewable natural gas for use in production processes, resulting in low-carbon fuels with substantially reduced carbon intensity.”

“The science here is so impressive,” Ekstrum said. “For the biotech community, being able to connect with a company like this is huge – whether you’re a college student hoping to grow a career here, a professional looking for new opportunities or a related business looking to build relationships.”

While the South Dakota facility is estimated to come online in 2025 and produce 55 million gallons of aviation fuel annually, even the current level of demand for Gevo’s fuel is going to necessitate additional plants to be built.

The company has agreements already representing $2.3 billion in annual sales with partners such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, British Airways, Alaska Airlines, Aer Lingus, Finnair, Trafigura, Kolmar and SAS.

 “This level of demand would require multiple plants to be built to satisfy those and future agreements,” Manuel said.

 There’s a lot to recommend South Dakota as part of future expansion, Westra said.

“We’re in ‘corn country,’ which is what they need, we have rail access, we have reliable wind power, and we’re glad to have built a great relationship already,” he said. “I’m confident this won’t be the last project in South Dakota.”

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