WASHINGTON — COVID-related lockdowns and travel restrictions caused a sharp drop in ethanol demand, forcing partial or full shutdowns of two-thirds of U.S. ethanol plants in 2020.
However, there was a silver lining as numerous plants were able to transition production to aid in the fight against the invisible enemy.
Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO, reflected on the unique challenges of 2020 and looked ahead to an optimistic future in his state-of-the-industry address to kickoff the National Ethanol Conference.
“As COVID cases began to surge across the country, ethanol facilities quickly ramped up production of the high-purity alcohol needed for virus-killing sanitizers and disinfectants,” Cooper said.
“Many producers took the extra step of bottling and packaging hand sanitizer on site, and companies throughout the industry generously donated sanitizer and other cleansers to local healthcare workers and first responders.”
“When America’s ethanol industry stops running, so does America.”— Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO
According to a study conducted for RFA by Information Resources Inc., consumer demand for hand sanitizer skyrocketed by 1,300% between January and May of 2020.
“And the ethanol industry was there to meet that new demand. We may never know how many lives were protected or saved because of these actions, but we do know that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, using hand sanitizer is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to those around you,” Cooper said.
As several COVID vaccines proved highly effective in clinical trials and they would soon be approved for nationwide distribution, there was a catch, but the ethanol industry stepped up once again.
“The most effective vaccines needed to be stored and shipped at a temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. As the largest provider of captured biogenic carbon dioxide and dry ice in the United States, ethanol producers supplied the millions of pounds of dry ice needed to keep tens of millions of doses of life-saving vaccine at the proper temperature,” Cooper said.
Gasoline consumption in 2020 dropped 14% compared to 2019 due to the pandemic-related lockdowns and travel restrictions. With more than half of the industry’s capacity idled at one point last year, the 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2020 represented the lowest annual output volume since 2013.
“But ethanol still comprised nearly 10.2% of the U.S. gasoline pool, the number of retail outlets selling E15 and flex fuels like E85 continued to grow and the ethanol export total of 1.33 billion gallons was the fourth-highest ever,” Cooper continued.
“Meanwhile, the ethanol industry remained as one of the world’s top manufacturers of high-protein animal feed, producing 33 million metric tons of distillers’ grains and other feed co-products. And even though distillers’ grains production was down 13% compared to 2019, our DDG exports actually increased slightly in 2020.
“When two-thirds of U.S. ethanol plants were partially or fully idled last spring, there was a palpable sense of panic coming from the industry’s customers around the world. After all, they count on our industry to deliver the essential building blocks and ingredients that become fuel, feed, food, beverages and countless other bio-products.
“So, while 2020 was an incredibly difficult year for the ethanol industry, it definitely taught us one thing: When America’s ethanol industry stops running, so does America. Ethanol truly is essential energy.”
Just as the U.S. ethanol industry played a critical role in addressing the COVID crisis, American ethanol will serve as an essential solution to the emerging challenges facing the nation and the world.
“At the top of the list of those challenges is the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors of the global economy. In recent years, momentum has been building—and outcry has been growing — for public policies that can aggressively shrink the carbon footprint of our nation and our world. And following last November’s elections, addressing climate change and reducing carbon emissions will most assuredly be an immediate priority for Washington,” Cooper noted.
“Our new president, Joe Biden, has already issued executive orders focused on reducing U.S. carbon emissions, he’s taken the first steps to re-enter the Paris climate agreement and he has promised to put the U.S. on a path to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. President Biden’s pledge comes after committees in both the U.S. House and Senate last year also called for taking action to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
“The U.S. economy cannot achieve net-zero emissions in the next three decades without addressing transportation fuels. The combustion of fossil fuels of transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, contributing nearly 30% of the total.”
Cooper said ethanol can and should play a central role in the effort to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The carbon footprint of typical corn ethanol is already 50% better than gasoline, he said, with greater reductions on the way.
“Mark my words, zero-carbon corn ethanol is coming,” Cooper said.
But, he added, smart policy and regulation will be necessary to ensure ethanol reaches its full potential to decarbonize transportation fuels. That includes restoring integrity to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which according to a new study has already reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly one billion metric tons.
Cooper also called on the Biden administration to remove burdensome roadblocks that are keeping E15 from spreading more rapidly, embrace a national standard for low-carbon and high-octane fuels and encourage the production of more flex-fuel vehicles, as President Biden himself once called for, when serving as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.