Ethanol Glut Puts Third Plant on Hold in as Many Months

As an old high school teacher of mine always used to say, “Three trees make a row,” meaning it only takes three occurrences to equal a trend. Ethanol producer Pacific Ethanol said today it has suspended construction of its Imperial Valley plant near Calipatria, Calif. “until market conditions improve” — the third ethanol plant whose construction has been put on hold in the last three months.

Back in October, BioFuel Energy Corp. (BIOF) said it would halt work on its third planned plant due to a production glut and dropping ethanol prices. Just weeks earlier, also citing current market conditions, VeraSun said it would suspend construction of a 110-million-gallon-per-year ethanol biorefinery in Reynolds, Ind.

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The “market conditions” that these ethanol producers are referring to is the fact that the average price of ethanol has dropped some 30 percent since May, as market subsidies combined with a lack of infrastructure for its delivery and use have created a surplus of the renewable fuel. Add in the rising cost of corn, and some ethanol producers have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy in recent months.

Pacific Ethanol made headlines in late November after an investment fund controlled by Bill Gates said it planned to sell off its 20 percent stake in the ethanol maker. The cascading effect of Bill Gates saw a 22 percent drop in the company’s stock to under $5 per share, which is nearly one-tenth of the $42 share price that Pacific Ethanol traded at during the glory days of ethanol investment a year and a half ago.

Despite the fact that the company secured up to $35 million in financing from the state of California last week, the company’s financials don’t look too impressive. In early November, Sacramento, Calif.-based Pacific Ethanol reported a third-quarter net loss of $4.84 million on sales of $118.1 million and said its gross profit margin fell to 4 percent from 12.2 percent in the same quarter a year earlier. Ouch!

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