By John Duff
Last month, I wrote about the importance of promoting 15% blends of ethanol, or e15. In fact, since I assumed writing duties for this column back in June, I have frequently written about ethanol. This is no accident. Ethanol has been a stabilizing force for U.S. grain demand for decades, adding value to harvests that grow larger by the year and creating jobs in rural America. And this says nothing of the benefits to air quality and national security. Ethanol is a true win-win.
However, as I wrote last month, we will have serious problems if we don’t scale the "blend wall," or the effective limit on the percentage of ethanol that can be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply chain (e10, or 10%). Although the Trump administration’s relaxation of an unnecessary regulatory barrier to year-round e15 sales is a positive development — and frankly, good public policy, the ultimate choice to buy e15 still rests with the American consumer.
For this reason, the sorghum industry has made significant investments in two important and related initiatives.
The first aims to clear the way for e15 at the pump. The Biofuels Infrastructure Partnership program is a grassroots effort to fund new infrastructure for e15. Selling higher blends of ethanol at convenience stores sometimes requires new equipment or modifications to existing equipment, and both require investment. With this in mind, the sorghum, corn and ethanol industries partnered with USDA to create a program that has seen almost a quarter-billion dollars invested in infrastructure.
USDA and private fuel providers matched contributions from farm country to help reach this amount, so the investment attributable to the sorghum industry alone is $500,000. As a result of the effort, we have seen hundreds of new equipment purchases and upgrades that have already increased sales of e15 in every region of the U.S., and in particular, Kansas and Texas, where most of the sorghum ethanol produced is marketed.
The second initiative aims to promote ethanol — and most importantly, its effective usage — to American consumers. American Ethanol was launched in 2011 as a partnership between the ethanol industry and NASCAR. With millions of fans and an iconic place in American sports and cultural history, NASCAR provides a platform unlike any other. E15 is the official fuel of NASCAR, and since 2011, its drivers have traveled 15 million miles on the homegrown fuel. The phrase "good enough" sometimes has negative connotations, but I think it’s appropriate here: If e15 is good enough for the best drivers and mechanics in the world, it’s good enough for me!
The sorghum industry has been involved in American Ethanol almost since the beginning, but we took a very low-key role providing support behind the scenes and making our voice heard when needed. However, this year, we made the strategic decision to step out and be more vocal in our support of e15, so we launched two partnerships to sponsor drivers Matt Tifft and Austin Self at races in Kansas and Texas. We’ve got two races under our belt, and we’re looking forward to two more in the first half of 2019.
Although seeing "Sorghum: The Smart Choice" zipping around a track at 180 mph is fun, actually having a presence on the car is the least-valuable part of these partnerships. Remember, many of the same folks that have had questions about e15’s safety and effectiveness in the past are some of NASCAR’s biggest fans. And, those fans are loyal to their sport and the sponsors that help bring it to them. American Ethanol didn’t just happen. It was the result of years of careful market research, and it’s paying dividends for e15 demand. It has been the sorghum industry’s pleasure to be involved.
Duff is a strategic business director for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @sdorghumduff.