Ohio is celebrating 16 years of corn ethanol production in 2024.

Biofuels update in Ohio

By Matt Reese, Dale Minyo and Dusty Sonnenberg

Biofuels have had a profound impact on markets for Ohio’s corn and soybean producers. Both corn ethanol and soy-based biodiesel have contributed to the state’s fuel needs and demand for the crops. Of course, Sustainable Aviation Fuel is a huge potential market moving forward, but there are plenty of other updates for ethanol and biodiesel as well.

Ohio ethanol update

In 2024, Ohio is celebrating 16 years of in-state, large scale ethanol production.

“The appropriate thing to do is to celebrate 16 years because that 16th birthday is when you get to start buying fuel and that’s what we’re talking about with corn ethanol and what it’s meant to the state,” said Tadd Nicholson, with the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. “It was a long path. Back in 2008 when we first got our ethanol plant here, we were not the first state. We were really looking at some of the western states with a great deal of envy wishing we had ethanol production here because we knew what it was doing to the basis of some of those western states. It was just such a positive thing for the corn industry and when we finally got ethanol production here it was a great day and a long time coming from policy work to checkoff research work building up from decades of work to get it to that point. When we finally got here it was a great celebration. Now in Ohio we have seven ethanol plants and all seven of them opened up in 2008. It was quite a remarkable year.”

In the last 16 years the ethanol industry has continued to evolve in Ohio and around the country.

“This ethanol industry is still growing and still evolving and that’s a good thing. This year in Ohio we produced a huge corn crop and we need to do something with it now. We’ve been very fortunate that ethanol has become such a major demand driver,” Nicholson said. “Recently it’s been very visible because you’re seeing companies like Sheetz come in and put in Unleaded 88, which is 15% ethanol that can go into any car since 2001, so 97% of cars on the road today. We’re seeing that product being priced 20 to 30 cents less than regular 10% ethanol fuel. E15 is a good thing for corn because we use 50% more corn anytime someone chooses that Unleaded 88 as opposed to E10. That’s a great thing for corn but it is also saving the consumer a lot of money so it’s a win-win. That’s a great success story.”

Adding to that success is a logistical win with Ohio’s corn growers, supplying Ohio’s ethanol plants supplying Ohio’s drivers.

“We’re looking at 225 million bushels of corn going into our ethanol plants here in Ohio. That 225 million bushels used to be hauled outside of Ohio and some other states turned it into a higher value product. Now that we have seven ethanol plants here that can utilize our corn, it’s consumed right here in the state and that economic activity stays right here within Ohio,” Nicholson said. “We use a lot of it here. We have 12 million people in this state and we’re in the top five fuel consuming states in the entire country. That means most of the ethanol that we produce here in Ohio is utilized right here within the state. It is a great story of growing corn here, turning it into ethanol here utilizing it into our vehicles right here within the Buckeye State.”

Biodiesel update

Soybean oil use in biofuels has also made significant progress in the last couple of decades, with a bright future. Along with potentially being the top feedstock for SAF, soybean oil has potential use in renewable diesel, said Tom Fontana, director for research and education for the Ohio Soybean Council.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there. One is something called renewable diesel. Renewable diesel has entered into the marketplace really quite dramatically in the last 3 to 5 years and some of the oil companies have gotten involved in it. Renewable diesel uses the same feedstocks as you use for biodiesel, but it’s a different process,” Fontana said. “It’s more like creating petroleum diesel and renewable diesel can be used as 100% replacement for petroleum diesel, unlike biodiesel which is usually blended. Renewable diesel uses a lot of waste grease and oils, some of which is soybean oil. You can also use regular soybean oil as a feedstock. Renewable diesel production is almost equal to biodiesel production now, so the total production of biodiesel and renewable diesel is up to 3.5 to 4 billion gallons a year now.”

With a huge variation in biodiesel feedstock over the years, consistent quality has been a key concern for end users and a challenge for the market. Scott Fenwick, technical director for Clean Fuels America, has been pleased as biodiesel quality and consistency have improved.

“We admit that back in the early 2000s our industry had a problem. There were people jumping into this new industry, new credits, new tax incentives and they were out just to make a buck. Nowadays, biodiesel is produced at commercial industrial facilities that have an oversight program. They’re part of a quality management system we call BQ9000. The fuel today is better than ever. In fact, part of the work that Clean Fuels does, which is supported by organizations like the Ohio Soybean Council, is to prove that biodiesel will blend at least to B20 and more often, even higher blends can be used in any diesel equipment out there today,” Fenwick said. “Quality is better than it’s ever been before. We’re surveying all the biodiesel plants, getting copies of their 2023 quality data. We take that data and we turn that into an annual quality report. We use the National Renewable Energy Lab under the Department of Energy to take that data, synthesize it, statistically analyze it and we put out these annual quality reports that demonstrate the quality of the industry. We’re really thrilled over the last seven years. I’d put the quality of biodiesel up against any diesel fuel out there in the marketplace today.

“We recently revised and published the Biodiesel Handling and Use Guide again available from the National Renewable Energy Lab and what most users don’t understand is that the problems that they experience from fuels — and this is any and all fuels really — result from poor handling practices allowing that fuel to accumulate water. Then we see microbial growth and particulate settling out in the fuel. It’s that poor handling that then causes problems. The fuels today are better than ever.”

The consistent, improved quality of biodiesel makes it more reliable for end-users across the country.

“I’m operating B20 here in the Midwest obviously it got really cold across most of the country this winter and my B20 hasn’t failed me yet. I’ve got a diesel fueled car and I’ve got a diesel truck both operating on B20 and if you’ve got a good source and a good supplier, there shouldn’t be any issues with operating B20 all year long, assuming you’re operating under the best practices keeping that fuel clean and dry,” Fenwick said.

Like ethanol, biodiesel offers a wide range of benefits for the environment and the economy.

“Several decades ago, we were using these co-products, initially from soybean crush facilities, but then also those excess oils and fats across the country that didn’t have a place to go. Now we’re thrilled to see major agricultural companies across the U.S. expanding upon their crush facilities today adding value to both economic jobs and additional feedstock supplies for our industry, which is going to provide domestic energy security sources while providing more options to today’s American consumers,” Fenwick said. “That announcement from Louis Dreyfus in Upper Sandusky is huge. We’re seeing those types of announcements all across the country and what we really expect is by 2026 an increase in soybean crush facilities by about 35%, maybe even 40% across the country. For today’s farmers it means you’re going to have a local option, maybe more local than what you previously have had. And when you deliver those beans now, rather than half of our soybeans being shipped up to the Pacific Northwest and exported to China as whole beans, now those beans can be crushed here in the U.S., which means they are generating that protein and the oil, which is value added. That should also mean additional money in today’s farmers’ pockets. And from there, we can talk carbon reduction, greenhouse gas benefits, climate change, health benefits, and tailpipe emissions. We can talk domestic jobs and energy security, and those are just some of the benefits that biodiesel provides across the entire fuel supply chain.”

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