Data shows dip in ethanol production in relation to summer heat

By Kris Bevill | August 30, 2011

Ethanol production is on the rebound as producers ramp up following a bout of reduced output during  the extreme heat of July and early August. Between May 27 and June 3, U.S. ethanol producers pumped out 915,000 barrels of ethanol per day, according to U.S. DOE Energy Information Administration statistics. By July 8, however, as temperatures soared to the triple digits throughout much of the Corn Belt, production dropped to 872,000 barrels per day. Analysts questioned the reduced output, considering presumed high demand from refiners as they hurry to blend as much ethanol as possible before losing the blender’s tax credit. “Petroleum companies will find a place to store ethanol until they need it, as long as they can get the credit,” one analyst said. “They thought they lost VEETC [Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit] a year ago. They’re not going to let that opportunity pass by again.”

Hot weather presents a host of issues to ethanol plants, according to ethanol consulting firm Dominion Energy LLC President John Kwik, who said most ethanol plants were forced to slow down production this summer. High temperatures can reduce the cooling capacity of cooling towers and fermentation tanks and lower the viability of yeasts, he said. From there, the issues cascade through the production line all the way to distillers grains, which become sticky and hard to handle due to higher sugar content and/or the high humidity associated with hot summer days, he adds.

In Kansas, however, where temperatures have been about 10 degrees above average for most of the summer, at least one plant has been able to operate at capacity despite the heat. Steve Gardner, general manager of the 35 MMgy East Kansas Agri-Energy LLC plant in Garnett, said his facility has not suffered a drop in production. He credits three factors for the plant’s ability to maintain its production output during times of high heat: the age of the facility, the initial design of the plant and the skill of the in-house maintenance staff. “We’re only six years old and we’re ICM [Inc.]-built,” he said. “We’ve got a good design and through the years we’ve learned how to correct any design inefficiencies. We’ve got a good maintenance and design engineering group. Maintenance is a key focus for us.” Gardner said that as the plant ages, preventative and predictive maintenance will continue to play a vital role in the facility’s ability to produce as much ethanol as possible.

The EIA shows a gradual increase in ethanol output throughout the month of August. On Aug. 19, production had climbed back to 904,000 barrels per day.