Gas Misers or Corn Guzzlers

By John Addison (5/15/07)

People buying new cars are asking if they should get a high mileage hybrid that runs on gasoline, or a flex-fuel vehicle that could run on E85 ethanol. The United States DOE’s and EPA’s fueleconomy.gov, made it easy for car buyers to compare choices.

When you drive, there is most likely ethanol in your fuel tank. Ethanol is a fuel from a plant source that is normally mixed with gasoline. The percentage varies widely. All current U.S. vehicles can run on a blend of up to 10% ethanol (E10).

GM launched a national campaign, “Live Green Go Yellow.” GM and Ford (F) have sold millions of flex fuel vehicles (FFV) on the road. GM is prepared to make up to half its vehicles ethanol capable by 2012.

Although FFVs are hot sellers in the USA, most have never had a drop of E85 in their tank. They are only fueled with standard gasoline blends. There are over 6 million vehicles on the U.S. streets that could run E85. Most never have.

Most FFVs are fuel guzzlers; fueled with E85, they are corn guzzlers. In 2007 the best rated car running on E85 was the Chevrolet Impala, with a United States EPA mileage rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway when fueled with E85. For a typical U.S. year of driving, the annual fuel cost would be at $1,657 and 6 tons of CO2 would be emitted by this FFV when running on E85.

By contrast, the EPA rating for a Toyota (TM) Prius running on gasoline was 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway. The Prius would have an annual fuel cost of $833 and only emit 3.4 tons of CO2, compared to 6 tons from the most fuel efficient E85 offering.

A big problem is that ethanol cuts miles per gallon by about 27%. The energy content of E85 is 83,000 BTU/gallon, instead of 114,000 BTU/gallon for gasoline. Even by 2030, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that only 1.4% of ethanol use will be E85. The vast majority will be for small percentage blending with gasoline.

The EIA forecasts that ethanol use will grow from 4 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2030 (about 8 percent of total gasoline consumption vs. today’s 2%). Ethanol use for gasoline blending grows to 14.4 billion gallons and E85 consumption to only 0.2 billion gallons in 2030. In other words, agriculture will be a big winner without any need to spend millions of tax dollars funding E85 stations.

There is a heated debate about whether ethanol helps the environment. In the U.S., the vast majority of ethanol is processed from corn. There is no current environmental benefit if the source-to-wheels use of ethanol includes diesel farm equipment, fertilizer from fossil fuel, coal produced electricity, diesel delivery trucks hauling ethanol over 1,000 miles to refineries, and then fueling a vehicle with poor mileage.

The amount of U.S. corn that became ethanol exceeds 20 percent. The Corn Growers Association says that by 2015 a third of all the corn grown – or 5.5 billion bushels – likely will be for ethanol. Food prices have increased.

World Watch Institute warns “Conventional biofuels will be limited by their land requirements: producing half of U.S. automotive fuel from corn-based ethanol, for example, would require 80 percent of the country’s cropland.” Thus, large-scale reliance on ethanol fuel will require new conversion technologies and feedstock.

A broad coalition is more enthusiastic about cellulosic rather than corn ethanol. Ethanol and other biofuels can be made from a wide range of plant fiber and waste. Currently corn kernels are more easily processed into fuel than cellulosic corn stover, but new enzyme technology can change that. Future stalk for ethanol may include prairie grasses, Miscanthus, Poplar, Willow and algae. Cellulosic sources could produce ten times the yield per acre of corn.

Cellulosic ethanol could account for all 14.6 billion of forecasted consumption, and even more, without needing special E85 pumps. It could all be blended with existing gasoline and fueled into current and future gasoline vehicles. Such blended cellulosic ethanol creates major opportunities for farmers in the United States and the world. It is incremental business, rather than business that competes with existing food business.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has concluded that with “an aggressive plan to develop cellulosic biofuels between now and 2015, America could produce the equivalent of nearly 7.9 billion barrels of oil per day by 2050. That is equal to more than 50 percent of our current total oil use in the transportation sector and more than three times as much as we import from the Persian Gulf alone.”

Increasingly biofuel will not be made from food; rather it will be made from sources such as waste, grasses, fast growth trees, algae, and biotechnology.

Fueling all current high-mileage cars with E10 helps reduce global warming when the ethanol is from cellulosic sources. Putting E85 ethanol in a vehicle with poor mileage does not help. It does not even help the nation with energy independence.

Until flex-fuel vehicles offer the same high mileage as many current cars, do not buy a FFV. The FFV will not help your pocketbook, the nation’s energy security, nor will it help the environment. When you buy your next vehicle, get high miles per gallon.

John Addison is the author of the upcoming book Save Gas, Save the Planet and publishes the Clean Fleet Report http://www.cleanfleetreport.com. This article is copyright John Addison with permission to publish or excerpt with attribution.

6 replies
  1. Cheap
    Cheap says:

    I am sick of high fuel prices so I am doing something about it. This weekend I am converting my car to a 100+MPG Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) at the Maker’s Fair May 19 & 20, 2007 San Mateo Fairgrounds, California http://makerfaire.com/pub/e/339 I’ve been working on it since November, Follow my blog; http://priuschat.com/My-official-Prius-Plus-mods-… It is good for our environment and good for our national security. I guess I’ll still have to wait for a 100MPG SUV that will pull a boat…someday.

  2. Francesco DeParis
    Francesco DeParis says:

    The feedstock debate for ethanol should be looked at from a different angle. Corn should obviously not be the only type of feedstock for ethanol production. The government recognizes this and is funding many projects to advance cellulosic ethanol production. A novel approach to ethanol production in the states is to make it more regionalized. The premise of this strategy is that local markets would use locally grown/produced feedstocks. This would benefit all members of the ethanol supply chain. Corn growers could better forecast demand for ethanol if they only sold to local markets. The market would be easier to define, and the crops would be easier to dedicate for the market. Transportation costs would decrease, and the increasing price pressure on corn futures would ease as alternative feedstocks were used around the US to create different types of ethanol. I wrote about the benefits of this strategy in “Decentralization of Alternative Energy” . Efficiency aside, I think FFV sales put us in the right direction. This is more of a branding effort on GM's part, but it does make the public more aware of alternatives. Hybrids are getting more popular now and it will surely be offered with more environmentally friendly options. Also, I think FFV sales are fueled by government fleet purchases. A lot of states have mandates to have "green" or clean burning fleets. This only means they have to buy FFV cars, but not necessarily use ethanol to fuel them. I know that New Mexico has a problem where they have the mandate and have purchased the FFV fleet, but they don't have enough ethanol distribution stations to supply their fleet! Hybrid technologies will take off more rapidly as different segments of the automotive industry bring products to market with hybrid technologies. Mercedes and BMW for example are jointly working on a hybrid system that will push "green" technologies into the luxury segment. This will introduce a host of new technologies, and possibly the first diesel/electric hybrid which will set a new benchmark for automotive fuel economy. To date, Lexus has been the only manufacturer outside of the entry-level companies to bring hybrids into a different distribution channel. This argument could go on forever…but the bottom line is that progress is progress. FFV vehicles are better than non-FFV (excluding hybrids in the same vehicle class). Technologies will emerge to offer these vehicle owners fueling choices. I comment regularly on the business/investor side of alternative energy on Energy Spin: Alternative Energy Blog for Investors-Served DailyCheers,Francesco DeParis

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    I also think current FFV's are not optimised for e85 and more gasoline biased. There's still alot more work to get efficient e85 engines. E85 can take higher compression ratios than normal gasoline which in turn leads to better fuel economy.

  4. Nikolei
    Nikolei says:

    While cellulosic ethanol is obviously a preferable energy source for the transportation sector, arguing that people should wait to use cellulosic E85 puts the cart before the horse. In order for the American market to continue to put the necessary investment in cellulosic ethanol, some sort of high blend ethanol market needs to be established. By advancing current ethanol production and use (mostly from corn in the US), we can more easily transition to more efficient and cleaner ethanol. There is a large need to modify the fuel distribution network so that we can efficiently move ethanol to fuel stations and into vehicles. Currently, every gallon must be trucked or moved by rail to stations, which is highly inefficient. Right now Americans should be trying to increase e85 use so that the day of cellulosic ethanol will actually arrive. Discouraging e85 use will only ensure more petroleum usage.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Why would people rather see the farmers of America and our Federal Government clowns give away our corn and soy beans to third world countries for foriegn aid instead of putting it into something we can use right here in the USA? Furthermore why don't we go to some of these countries and collect the debt they owe us for aid in oil that they have? Seems that we are supporting them from both ends by buying there oil and feeding there people!!! Are we all stupid or just blind to the corrupt and ever fat politicians in DC?

  6. mike
    mike says:

    While our government and industries seek solutions that they can profit from . There are alot of things you can do to cut your gas bill as much as 25% . Personally I'm tired of high gas prices. I found a site http://www.sonomabuzz.com that is filled with ways to cut your gas mileage.

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