U.S. became world’s top ethanol exporter in 2011

The United States became the world’s leading exporter of ethanol in 2011, selling a record level of the biofuel into overseas markets, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

The nation has made a stunning about-face in its role in the global ethanol market. Just two years ago, the United States was a net importer of the fuel, which is blended into gasoline by federal mandate.

Through November, the United States exported 1.02 billion gallons of ethanol in 2011, in denatured and undenatured forms. That’s more than double the volume exported in all of 2010, about 400 million gallons, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry’s trade group.

“Prior to 2010, it was rare for the U.S. to export much ethanol at all. Then in 2011, it just exploded,” said Geoff Cooper, vice president of research for the Renewable Fuels Associations. “The U.S. is far and away  the leading exporter of ethanol worldwide.”

Brazil has long held that title, but its ethanol market has suffered from high prices and short supplies in recent years, Cooper said. Brazil produces its ethanol from sugarcane, which has been in short supply because of unfriendly weather. The shortage has made it a much more expensive ethanol feedstock compared to corn.

While Brazil has struggled to meet its own ethanol demand, the U.S. ethanol market has been saturated, making its price more attractive in the global market, Cooper said.

In fact, he noted, Brazil was the top destination for U.S. ethanol in 2011, followed by Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands.

Brazil “has left a void on the world market and the U.S. has filled that void,” Cooper said, adding that the new role likely will continue through 2012. “We do expect continued strength in the export market because it is going to take Brazil some time to get back on its feet and be a leading exporter.”