Even When Hurt, Ethanol Producers Help

A roundup of the articles in the June issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine, including stories on hand sanitizer; the future of E30; carbon capture and storage; the CO2 market, ethanol's digital transformation and an alternative to CIP caustics.
By Tom Bryan | June 12, 2020

The mainstream media doesn't always understand the scale and economics of ethanol production, so it wasn't surprising this spring when they framed the industry’s foray into hand sanitizer as a sort of saving grace in our darkest hour. That was understandable. It’s a good story—and you'll find it in this issue—but to be clear about what those sanitizer ventures really are, the media should understand that it is more about helping the country in a time of need than making a quick buck during the pandemic or, much less, jumping markets to replace lost volumes. It’s true that some producers achieved good short-term margins supplying alcohol for hand sanitizer—it’s helped save jobs and keep the lights on—but it is no panacea. It was simply the right thing to do, and the kind of thing our industry is always doing: helping out, pitching in, giving back. So, the real story is not just about the resiliency of ethanol producers, but the altruism of our industry during a time of despair.

In “Producing to Protect,” on page 18, EPM’s Lisa Gibson gives us a fuller perspective of this ethanol-based hand sanitizer phenomenon, visiting with three producers about the unique challenges of formulating and supplying alcohol for this emergency-time use. As Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, put it, if just one person has been protected from the virus because of our industry’s willingness to act, it’s all been worth it.

Even as we just begin to make real headway with E15, our industry is laying the groundwork for mid-level blends that some experts believe optimize ethanol’s performance and emissions-reducing attributes in gasoline. But as writer Susanne Retka Schill reports in “The Standoff for E30,” on page 24, disparate policy objectives between EPA and USDA threaten to to hinder the latter agency’s good-intentioned plan for ubiquitous E30 in the next 30 years.

Even now, at the peak of this pandemic, our industry has not stopped looking for opportunities for growth, efficiency, and carbon intensity reduction. And, perhaps, as we climb out of the COVID-19 downturn, producer interest in low-carbon fuel mechanisms will not wane, but intensify. Along with corn-fiber ethanol and green energy, carbon capture and storage (CCS) might also offer U.S. ethanol producers a lane to sink carbon, literally. In the “The Carbon Underground,” on page 30, author Luke Geiver explains how ethanol plants in Illinois and North Dakota are leveraging federal incentives to sequester CO2 and jump into the low-carbon fuels marketplace. On a related front, be sure to read Sam Rushing’s page-50 contribution, “CO2 Outlook: Consequences of the Crunch.”

On page 36, we look at the quiet digital revolution that is, one application at a time, changing the way our industry operates and does business. Also written by Retka Schill, “Driving the Digital Transformation,” explains how high-tech solutions like cloud-based data storage, mobile apps and RFID cards are making ethanol plants smarter and more efficient. Efficiency through change—ethanol’s mantra—is also brought to fore in our page-46 contribution about a stand-alone alternative to conventional clean-in-place caustics. 
Stay safe. Stay strong.

Author: Tom Bryan
BBI International