Target Grade Level / Age Range:

High School: 9-12


90 Minutes


As a result of this lesson, the student will …

  1. Identify where many U.S. ethanol production plants are located.
  2. Describe three factors that determine where ethanol facilities are built.


  • Writing surface
  • Projector
  • Colored pencils/crayons/markers
  • Large butcher paper- one piece for each group of four

Suggested Companion Resources

Background – Agricultural Connections

NOTE: Before this lesson is taught, it would be helpful to read the RFA Outlook on ethanol located on the website. This will give updated yearly information.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Provide each student with a blank map of the United States (from or another source). Using colored pencils, crayons or markers have each student shade the area they think most ethanol plants are located. After they have shaded where they think most plants are located, have them list two reasons why they thought most plants would be located in that area.

Give the students a few minutes to shade their map and to write down their reasons on the back of the paper. Have them share their maps and their reasons with someone that is sitting next to them.

Give the students time to share their maps and reasons with those sitting around them. After they have done that, ask for volunteers to share their maps and reasons with the entire class.

Lead the class through an inquiry process to discover where the ethanol plants are located.


OBJECTIVE 1. Identify where many U.S. ethanol production plants are located.

Prior to class, print the place the four lists of ethanol/biorefinery plants around the classroom. Distribute a second blank map of the U.S. to students. Have students circulate the room collecting the following information from each data set and recording it on their map or in their notebooks. Give students 5-10 minutes to complete the task.

  1. How many biorefineries utilize corn as the primary feedstock? (~209)
  2. How many biorefineries process sugar/starch? (215) How many biorefineries process cellulose? (14)
  3. Label each state on the map with the number of biorefineries that are located in that state. (AZ-1, CA-8, CO-4, FL-1, GA-2, IA-44, ID-2, IL-14, IN-15, KS-14, KY-2, LA-1, MI-6, MN-20, MO-7, MS-1, NC-1, ND-5, NE-26, NM-1, NY-3, OH-9, OR-4, PA-1, SD-15, TN-3, TX-4, VA-2, WI-8, WY-1)
  4. Identify and list some of the other types of feedstocks being used. (beverage waste, corn cobs, corn stover, corn fiber, wheat screenings, switchgrass, straw, sorghum, beets, seed corn, bagasse, vegetable waste, municipal waste, wood sugars)

Monitor the student’s progress while this activity is being completed. Make sure that they are writing down the information into their notebooks, and when they are finished, make sure they have returned to their desks. After all students have written the information, have one student read the statements and have a brief discussion about the content.

Using the PowerPoint slide deck, show the students where most of the plants are located. After the map is revealed, ask the students to compare their map with the map on the screen. (The instructor can also use the interactive map found at

There are approximately 210 plants currently in operation in the U.S. and another 25 proposed or under construction with a total capacity of 15.5M gallons annually. Take note of where most of the plants are located. There are 21 ethanol plants located in Canada.

Why do you think they are concentrated in the upper Midwest? Allow students to offer suggestions.

It’s not just by chance that most plants are built in the Midwest. As companies make considerations where to build, they have to look at several factors that help them make their decision. When companies begin to decide where to build new ethanol production facilities, they evaluate many considerations. Again, it is a very deliberate process. Companies do extensive research to evaluate the risks associated with the development of a facility.

Let’s explore some of the preliminary considerations in ethanol facility placement.

OBJECTIVE 2. Describe three factors that determine where ethanol facilities are built.

For the next activity students will be placed into groups of four. Each group will receive a large piece of butcher paper and markers. Within their groups, they will select their dream business to start. After they have decided upon a business, they will need to identify where their business will be located. They need to be specific with where it will be located. For example, do not just allow them to give a town; they need to tell where in the town it should be located. They will also need to provide justification for why they are building their business in that location. They need to think about attracting customers, how it relates with surrounding businesses, etc.

If you think about it, for some people, an ethanol plant is their dream business. It is something that the entrepreneur has worked long and hard to create. Ponder these questions…What if you were an entrepreneur? What if you could start any business you wanted? What would it be? Where would it be located? Why would it be located in that particular location?

Give students 15 minutes to get into our groups, decide upon a business and identify where it would be located and why. Instruct them to write all information on the large piece of paper that will be provided to our group. Have the groups arrange themselves throughout the room and give them paper and markers. As the students are working it will be important to monitor their progress; be prepared to offer suggestions and make sure they are describing why they selected the location their business is being built. After time is up or all students have completed, have each group share their business and corresponding information with the group.

Allow the groups to share with the class. Continue the process until all groups have shared their business. The student work can be displayed around the room.

It was interesting to hear the reasons many of us selected a particular location for our business. For some it was about getting the most customers, and for others they were more concerned about being able to have access to other businesses that would support them. No matter what the reason it is a fact that all businesses have justification for why they build in a certain location.

The same goes for ethanol plants. There are several factors that are used to determine where ethanol plants are built.

Using the slide deck, have students capture the following information into their notebooks. Discuss each point and ensure students comprehend how each of these factors might affect the decision to build an ethanol facility.

  1. Factors that determine where ethanol facilities are built.
    1. Current and projected regional markets, including competing gasoline components and prices.
    2. Feedstock availability
    3. Demand and cost
    4. Utilities and related infrastructure (includes waste water treatment options, roads and drinking water quantity and quality)
    5. Transportation options
    6. Pre-existing environmental conditions that may impact the area
    7. Land zoning and cost
    8. Weather and prevailing wind patterns
    9. Key economic issues, including eligibility for public finance programs.
    10. Labor availability.
    11. An assessment of co-products and by-products from preferred feed stocks and production processes, and a preliminary assessment of markets for co-products.
    12. Assessment of the approximate economic impact of the proposed plant on the local area is also completed.
    13. Review of a financial model that is applicable to the proposed process.
    14. Review of the business structure options that may be viable for the proposed project.
    15. A review of additional informational and potential financial resources that may be available to project developers.

Pass out the worksheet to students. Have students use computers or tablets and conduct research on a company of their choice. Allow approximately 10 minutes for this activity. Have students consider this new information as they review what they’ve learned today.

Give each student a sticky-note and ask him or her to answer the questions as their ticket out the door. First question: Why is this information important? Second question: What is the most important factor that determines where ethanol is produced?

Once students have answered those questions, have them share their responses with their neighbor. Finally, allow students to share their ideas with the class.

Answers to Evaluation:

Short Answer:

  1. Investors must review the current and projected regional markets, including competing gasoline components and prices, feedstock availability, demand and cost, utilities and related infrastructure including waste water treatment options, roads, process and drinking water quantity and quality; transportation options; pre-existing environmental conditions that may impact the area; land zoning and cost; weather and prevailing wind patterns; key economic issues, including eligibility for public finance programs; labor availability; an assessment of coproducts and by-products from preferred feed stocks and production processes, and a preliminary assessment of markets for co-products.
  2. Most ethanol production plants are located in the Midwest because supplies of raw materials such as corn, barley and wheat are abundant in this location.

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • There are approximately 210 plants currently in operation in the U.S. and another 25 proposed or under construction with a total capacity of 15.5M gallons annually. There are 21 ethanol plants located in Canada.

Extension Activities

  • Students can research corn production centers in the United States. Using the Internet, students will be able to identify the largest producers of corn and starch crops in the U.S. Based on the findings and the information provided in class, students will write a one-paragraph position statement identifying the rationale for the placement of the majority of ethanol production facilities. This can be used as a basis for discussion in class or in a club.
  • Locate the closest ethanol production facility. If it is feasible, take a tour of the facility. If not, invite a representative from the facility to speak to the class.
  • Students can do further research on selecting locations for ethanol plants as an assignment or independent study.


  • Adapted from Renewable Fuels Instructional Materials: Copyright © 2009 by National FFA Organization. Used by permission.
  • E-Moments® is a registered trademark of the National FFA Organization. Copyright © 2004 by National FFA Organization. Used by permission.
  • New materials, updates and revisions were funded in part by a grant from the Iowa Energy Center as a special project of the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.


Will Fett

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • Theme 5: Culture, Society, Economy and Geography
    • Discuss how agricultural practices have increased agricultural productivity and have impacted (pro and con) the development of the global economy, population, and sustainability
    • Discuss the relationship between geography (climate and land), politics, and global economies in the distribution of food
    • Provide examples of how changes in cultural preferences influence production, processing, marketing, and trade of agricultural products
    • Explain how comparative and absolute advantage in agriculture impacts supply and demand in relation to trade

Education Content Standards

  • SS.9–12.G.3 Essential Concept and/or Skill: Understand how human factors and the distribution of resources affect the development of society and the movement of populations.
  • SS.9–12.E.6 Essential Concept and/or Skill: Understand the local, state, regional, national, and international factors that create patterns of interdependence in the global economy.
  • 21.9–12.ES.1 Essential Concept and/or Skill: Communicate and work productively with others, incorporating different perspectives and cross cultural understanding, to increase innovation and the quality of work.

Common Core Connections

  • NL-ENG.K-12.4. Communication Skills.
  • NSS-G.K-12.6. Uses of Geography.
  • SL.9–10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one–on–one, in groups, and teacher–led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Creative Commons License

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