Just as ethanol has played an essential role in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the low-carbon fuel will also serve as essential energy for combatting climate change, Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper said today at the 26th annual 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,” said Cooper, as part of his annual “State of the Industry” address. “Many producers took the extra step of bottling and packaging hand sanitizer onsite, and companies throughout the industry generously donated sanitizer and other cleansers to local health care workers and first responders.”
Ethanol producers are also serving as the largest source of dry ice to store and distribute COVID vaccines, Cooper said.
Meanwhile, pandemic-induced lockdowns had an enormous impact on the industry’s production of renewable fuel and co-products like distillers grains. More than half of the industry’s capacity was idled at one point last year, and the 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2020 represented the lowest annual output volume since 2013. Cooper noted that when 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 bioproducts,” he said.
“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.”
Still, Cooper noted, ethanol comprised slightly over 10% 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. And even though distillers grains production was down 13% compared to 2019, distillers grains exports actually increased slightly in 2020.
Looking forward, 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 new 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.