BENSON — While stores struggle to keep hand sanitizer on their shelves, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company is doing what it can to supply the companies making the much sought-after sanitizers with the primary ingredient they need.

Chad Friese, general manager of CVEC, said the Benson facility has ramped up its production of the pharmaceutical-grade alcohol that is used to make hand sanitizer. The company is shipping the pharmaceutical-grade alcohol to a number of large producers of hand sanitizer, he said.

CVEC has been producing pharmaceutical-grade alcohol since 2001. CVEC added the capacity to produce pharmaceutical- and industrial-grade alcohol to diversify its production and take advantage of markets for a wide range of consumer and industrial products.

The CVEC plant usually devotes about 15 percent of its overall production to non-fuel alcohol. Friese said it has boosted production to 20 to 22 percent of total production.

“We’ve had to streamline here to make sure we’re as efficient as possible to get as many gallons out as we can,” he said.

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Demand for hand sanitizer has skyrocketed as the COVID-19 pandemic has developed. A number of small distillers of spirits in Minnesota have recently converted some of their production to alcohol for hand sanitizers as well.

Friese said the distillers that CVEC works with have focused on serving their localized markets, which has allowed CVEC to continue providing its product to the large and efficient processors it has served for many years. This helps bring as much of the product to consumers as possible at this time of need, he noted.

The demand for pharmaceutical-grade alcohol comes at a time when the price for the fuel alcohol produced by the country’s ethanol plants is at its lowest point since 2003, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Friese noted that the increased sales of industrial alcohol are welcome, but those revenues do not make up for the loss in revenues resulting from the dramatic downturn in fuel alcohol prices.

The CVEC plant has committed itself to maintaining production to ensure the supply of the pharmaceutical grade alcohol to its customers during this time of need, according to the general manager. It is also aware that the market for hand sanitizer could evaporate as quickly as it has expanded.

And, he pointed out that the depressed price for fuel alcohol is just one of the challenges CVEC and other ethanol plants face at this time. CVEC and other plants are focused on keeping employees healthy at a time when social distancing is essentially the main line of defense against the spread of the coronavirus.