A Defining Moment for Ethanol

This spring, as the U.S. ethanol industry ratcheted back production by more than 45 percent, taking 8 billion gallons of capacity off line, it did anything but retreat from the COVID-19 crisis. It rose to the challenge, and stepped up to help.
By Geoff Cooper | June 10, 2020

These are indeed trying times. But it is in such times that real character is revealed. And the character of the U.S. ethanol industry has demonstrated itself to be resilient, innovative and extraordinarily generous.

I cannot overstate the devastation that COVID-19 has wreaked upon the U.S. ethanol industry. From the beginning of March to the middle of April, well over half of the ethanol plants in the United States either idled completely or significantly slashed output. Nearly 8 billion gallons of production came offline in just six weeks, representing 45 percent of the ethanol industry’s annual production capacity.
But the story of ethanol and the coronavirus in 2020 is not just about gallons. Other critically important products manufactured at an ethanol plant are also at risk—livestock feed, corn distillers oil and carbon dioxide gas used in food and beverage markets, wastewater treatment, medical uses, and other applications.

Given such horrific market conditions and unprecedented challenges, nobody would blame the industry if it retreated, waited for the public health crisis to pass, and became consumed solely with its own survival. But that is just not in this industry’s DNA. When the U.S. ethanol industry sees a challenge, it steps up to help. Period. In the face of the COVID-19 scourge, many ethanol producers have volunteered to be foot soldiers in the effort to protect public health and the food-delivery systems. I have never been prouder.

Recognizing the need for significantly increased supplies of hand sanitizer to protect the general public and help stem the spread of the virus, several RFA member companies retooled to be able to produce the higher-quality alcohol used in sanitizer. And working with local partners, ethanol producers have dramatically increased supplies of ethanol for this purpose.

The switch from fuel-grade ethanol to the high-purity grades required a lot of work behind the scenes to encourage government agencies to relax burdensome regulations and remove roadblocks, at least temporarily. In response to requests and input from RFA, both the U.S. Department of the Treasury and U.S. Food and Drug Administration moved quickly to issue guidance and slightly modify regulations to enable fuel ethanol plants to increase production of the grades of alcohol suitable for hand sanitizer. More than two dozen plants are doing so now, many for the first time, working with local businesses and charities to get the product out to hospitals, first responders, the general public and those who need it the most.

Another example of the U.S. ethanol industry helping out in the fight against COVID-19 and the havoc it has wrought on our economy is our work to help maintain a reliable supply of carbon dioxide. CO2 is used in the processing, packaging, preservation, and shipping of many foods and beverages. In addition, CO2—in different forms—is used in various aspects of the healthcare industry, and is also an important component in many municipal water treatment systems. It is a ubiquitous and critically important component of our food supply and public health. Approximately 45 ethanol plants capture and sell CO2 to a variety of customers; in fact, ethanol plants capture 3 to 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually, representing 40 percent of the national supply.

In April, the RFA joined with the beer industry, the North American Meat Institute, and the National Turkey Federation, among others, in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence stressing the importance of maintaining a reliable CO2 supply and preventing shortages of this critical product in the face of such a widespread reduction in fuel ethanol output.

Sooner or later, the nation will put this pandemic behind it. The economy will recover. Our industry will bounce back. And when we look back at this terrible crisis, we will be proud of the instrumental role the U.S. ethanol industry played in getting through it. Once again, our industry’s true character will have been revealed to a grateful nation.


Author: Geoff Cooper
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association