Comparing Plant Capacities of U.S. Ethanol & Biodiesel Industries

By Kolby Hoagland | December 13, 2013

In collaboration with Biodiesel Magazine, we have closed production of the 2014 Biodiesel Plant Map and have sent it off to the printer. This year’s map offers the most up-to-date data on the biodiesel plants in the U.S. and Canada. From our robust plant data confirmation outreach effort to working on the layout, we are proud of the detail that this year’s map contains. This week’s DataPoints pulls a bit from remnants left on the cutting room floor that did not make it into map.

The graphic below highlights and compares the U.S. ethanol and biodiesel industries by the spread and average sizes plants across both industries in MMgy.

Size of US Ethano & Biodiesel Plants

For the U.S. ethanol industry, the mean production capacity across all 214 existing ethanol plants in the U.S. is 107.5 MMgy, which is equal to the median plant capacity, also at 107.5 MMgy. Having the same mean and median indicates that plant capacities across the U.S. ethanol industry are well distributed around the 107.5 MMgy mark. We might even say that a production capacity of 107.5 MMgy is the “sweet spot” for the size of an ethanol plant in the U.S. (See the previous week’s blog on capacity sweet spots).

The biodiesel industry is far different than the ethanol industry in regards to the size of the plants that make up the industry. The biodiesel industry as a whole is skewed more to the lower end of the production spectrum. Of the 167 biodiesel plants tracked by Biodiesel Magazine, the mean plant production capacity is 17.1 MMgy, while the median plant size is 6.9 MMgy. There are a far greater number of smaller plants below the industry mean of 17.1 MMgy. The pie chart indicates that 54% of the industry is made up of plants that are 9 MMgy or less in size.

The greatest determinant on the size of an energy production plant, particularly bioenergy plants, is the quantity and nature of the feedstock that will fuel the plant. When comparing biodiesel and ethanol industries, we must consider the nature of each of their feedstocks. The current ethanol industry has a homogenous feedstock in corn which makes for a relatively uniform plant size across the industry, which is heavily concentrated in the Corn Belt. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is made from an array of feedstocks, everything from animal fats to palm oil to used cooking oils. One result is that the biodiesel industry is spread relatively evenly across the U.S. near population centers. Furthermore, the size of a biodiesel plants are built to match their feedstock; therefore, the heterogeneous nature of biodiesel feedstocks results in plants across the industry varying considerably in size.

The nature, quantity, and diversity of feedstock determine the size of plants in the ethanol and biodiesel industries. As corn oil from ethanol plants becomes more available, new feedstock processing technologies emerge, and the advanced ethanol industry progresses, the “sweet spot” for the size of plants in both industries will also change.

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