Would you believe it if I told you there was an ethanol company whose stock was trading at 52-week highs? One by one, the former stars of this show have been taken behind the barn and shot. Valero Energy (NYSE:VLO) plunged into ethanol by beating out Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) at auction and taking some of VeraSun Energy's sorry assets out of bankruptcy. Aventine filed for Chapter 11 in April, and Pacific Ethanol's production units followed in May.

All the while, shares of Green Plains Renewable Energy (NASDAQ:GPRE) have been exploding. What is it that has kept this company, North America's fourth-largest ethanol producer, afloat?

Well, 2008 was a disaster for Green Plains, as it was for pretty much everyone in the space. In October, the company tripled its operating capacity when it reverse-merged into privately held VBV, whose shareholders injected $60 million of equity into the combined company. They paid $10 per share for 6 million shares, whose value subsequently plummeted to around a buck each.

At the time, that investment didn't necessarily look like money well spent. But as 2009 has rolled along, things have really turned around. Green Plains, taking a page from The Andersons (NASDAQ:ANDE), has become more vertically integrated. Charges for contract terminations with outside marketers dinged first-quarter results, but by the second quarter, the company was back in the black. Green Plains was even feeling secure enough to pick up two VeraSun plants that Valero didn't buy.

By September, Green Plains was running at its full 480 million-gallon-per-year capacity. Third-quarter results were impressive, with operations generating $19.3 million in EBITDA. Following this release, shares have hurtled well past that $10-per-share price that the folks from VBV paid. They've suddenly started looking pretty savvy.  

Even though Green Plains' management team has impressed me with its ability to dodge disaster in this very difficult space, I still wouldn't necessarily recommend purchasing a company in the ethanol space today.

Motley Fool CAPS players have a low opinion of Green Plains, despite its breathtaking share performance this year. In aggregate, they've awarded a stock a lowly one-star rating. Think they're missing something in this story? Sound off for yourself.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.