Fueling Up With Ethanol

Are Flexible Fuel Vehicles the Answer to Our Oil Addiction?


  • E85

    E85

    General Motors has an annual production of more than 400,000 E85 vehicles — the most of any manufacturer. | March 18, 2010

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America is addicted to oil — at least that's what President George W. Bush said in his 2006 State of the Union address. With the U.S. ranked as the top consumer of oil worldwide, consuming more than three times the second largest oil-consuming country (China), calling it an addiction isn't an exaggeration. During his speech, the president called for the U.S. to reduce its oil imports from the Middle East 75 percent by the year 2025. The commander in chief's so-called Advanced Energy Initiative calls for, among other efforts, increasing ethanol production and putting more flexible fuel vehicles — which can run on either gasoline or ethanol — on the market. Ethanol, a renewable and controversial fuel produced from corn and other crops, is already in more than 15 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States. Most often it is blended with gasoline to produce a fuel that is 5-10-percent ethanol. A small percentage of the 4 million gallons of ethanol currently produced is E85, a blend of 85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline. E85 is the highest ethanol blend that can be run in U.S. market flexible fuel vehicles, also known as E85 vehicles.

Although Henry Ford planned to fuel his early cars with ethanol, we didn't see the first flex fuel vehicles until the mid-1990s. Today, there are over 5 million flexible fuel vehicles that can run on either E85 or gasoline. That number will grow dramatically very soon, thanks to a big push by General Motors and other automakers.

Flexible fuel vehicles grow

Flexible fuel vehicle sales began after Congress passed the Alternative Motor Fuels Act of 1988, which offered automakers credits toward the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that all automakers are required to meet. Adding E85 vehicles to an automaker's vehicle lineup helped balance out larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, so the average fuel economy for the vehicle fleet could be kept within federal standards. Unfortunately, while these vehicles could be powered by E85, customers usually fueled up with gasoline, chiefly because E85 was not readily available.

"While the [Alternative Motor Fuels] Act provided an incentive for automakers to build the cars, it did not address the development of an infrastructure for the fuel," explains Phil Lampert, executive director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition. It wasn't until the 2005 Renewable Fuels Standard that an incentive was placed on ethanol itself, allowing the well-established, but heretofore stagnant, ethanol production industry to grow by leaps and bounds.

Today, there are about 600 E85 fuel stations where the 5 million flex fuel vehicles sold over the past decade can fill up. While this is a small number compared to the approximately 170,000 gasoline stations in the U.S., it's a huge step forward. By contrast, in 2000 there were only about a dozen E85 stations.

The 2005 Act mandated that ethanol production double by 2012 to 7.5 billion gallons, which is estimated to reduce the U.S.'s oil consumption by 80,000 barrels per day. However, considering that our average daily oil consumption in 2007 was 20,687,000 barrels a day, of which 9.2 million barrels were refined into gasoline, it's clear that ethanol is but a part of a larger solution. Lampert says plans are underway to add 2,000 more E85 fuel stations within the next year.

Along with this infrastructure comes even more flexible fuel vehicles. Automakers will produce about 700,000 E85 vehicles in 20 different makes and models for the 2006 model year. While some of those vehicles will be sold only to fleet buyers, 13 of the 20 will be available to the individuals. General Motors, which began selling E85-capable vehicles in 1999, is leading the effort to make flexible fuel vehicles available to the public with its "Live Green. Go Yellow" campaign and a commitment to manufacture 400,000 vehicles for 2006. That commitment is nearly double the number of flex fuel vehicles the company sold in 2005.

Automakers Get on Board

While General Motors believes that the ultimate solution to reducing the U.S.'s dependence on oil is hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles, it sees ethanol and hybrids as viable ways to reduce oil consumption right now. "E85 provides us with a tremendous opportunity to save gasoline because ethanol is renewable, domestically produced and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions," said Elizabeth Lowery, GM vice president of environment and energy.

GM's campaign to increase ethanol use goes well beyond simply producing flex fuel vehicles. The company has numerous TV, print and radio spots promoting "Live Green. Go Yellow," including an ad that aired during Super Bowl XL. Other efforts include the creation of a Live Green, Go Yellow Web site, the use of distinctive yellow gas caps on E85 vehicles, and partnerships with several ethanol producers to increase the number of E85 fuel stations. "We recognize it's more than just putting the vehicles out there," said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss. "That's why we are helping to get people to work together to fuel the vehicles."

Other automakers — including Chrysler, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan — have also made commitments to flexible fuel vehicles and the ethanol infrastructure. The Chrysler Group, which sold its first E85 vehicles in 1998, will produce about 25,000 flex fuel vehicles this year for fleet sales only. By the 2008 model year, the company has committed to building about 500,000 flex fuel vehicles, about 25 percent of all the vehicles it produces annually.

Ford, which expects to produce about 250,000 E85 vehicles for 2006, recently partnered with VeraSun Energy Corporation, the nation's No. 2 ethanol producer, to increase the number of E85 fuel stations and boost public awareness of ethanol. Ford also unveiled a concept version of the Ford Escape Hybrid that can run on E85. Although there are challenges with bringing an E85 hybrid to production, this prototype vehicle represents one way to reduce oil consumption even further.

Not all automakers are ready to jump on the ethanol bandwagon. E85 is one of many alternative fuels that Toyota is considering, but currently the company has no plans to produce flexible fuel vehicles for sale in the U.S. Honda does not offer any E85 vehicles in the U.S. either, but it supports blends of E10 in gasoline. "We are concerned about reliance on significantly higher levels of ethanol until we develop a more efficient production process relying on a product other than corn," said Ed Cohen, American Honda's vice president of government and industry relations.

Why Should You Use Ethanol? You may already be using a blend of ethanol and gasoline in your vehicle and not even know it. Ethanol is used across the country in quantities of 5-10 percent to reduce smog-forming emissions and greenhouse gases. In 2004, the use of ethanol in the U.S. reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 7 million tons, according to the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. That's the equivalent of removing the emissions from over 1 million vehicles on the road. In addition, ethanol is highly biodegradable, making it safer for the environment in the event of spills or leaks into the soil.

A 10-percent blend, called E10, is most common and is required in all gasoline sold in Hawaii, Minnesota and Montana, while a dozen other states are currently considering enacting similar mandates. Because all vehicles sold in the U.S. are made to run on ethanol blends up to E10, the only way to tell you are using a low-level ethanol blend is by checking the label on the pump when you refuel, although not all states require such labeling.

E85 is dispensed at pumps with the E85 logo and can only be used in flexible fuel vehicles. Currently, vehicles cannot be modified to run on E85 without violating federal standards. See the "Flex Fuel Vehicles Available" list below to see if you own a vehicle that is E85-compatible.

If you own one of the 5 million E85-capable vehicles, fueling with E85 is not only beneficial to the environment, you'll most likely see a small increase in performance, which will be accompanied by a small decrease in fuel economy. On average, when flexible fuel vehicles are powered by E85, the vehicles have about 5-percent more horsepower and a 10-percent drop in fuel-efficiency. The added power comes from ethanol's higher octane rating (ranging from 100-105). The fuel economy decrease comes from the fact that ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline, which means you have to use more of it.

Flexible fuel vehicles are only minimally different from their gasoline-only counterparts. Typically, the vehicle's fuel delivery system is replaced with stainless steel or Teflon-coated components to ensure the E85 does not corrode them. In addition, there is a fuel sensor that detects the ratio of gasoline to ethanol. According to Lampert, early research indicates that because vehicles powered by E85 run so much cleaner than gasoline vehicles, some maintenance costs may actually be less than gasoline vehicles' in the long term.

Ethanol's future

The key to producing large quantities of ethanol lies in starting with materials that produce it more efficiently than corn does currently. While producing ethanol from corn uses only the starch portion of the kernel, leaving the protein, minerals and nutrients for use as food for humans or animals, most researchers agree that using non-food resources, like wood chips, willow trees, switch grass or corn stalks is a better long-term solution. The cellulose within these products would then be broken down and distilled into ethanol. Currently, however, this method of producing cellulosic ethanol is expensive. One of the goals of the president's Advanced Energy Initiative is to speed up the research in this area with the goal of making cellulosic ethanol competitively priced by 2012.

There's also the possibility of using E10 in more of the U.S.'s gasoline supply, or even fueling today's non-flex fuel vehicles with slightly higher blends. Several groups are currently studying the effects of blends up to E30 on non-modified vehicles. Early results from a study by the American Coalition for Ethanol show that the vehicles tested with E10, E20 and E30 did not show any signs of damage; however, more research needs to be done in this area, according to Brian Jennings, the group's executive president for public policy. Currently, automakers do not warranty the use of anything above E10 for non-flex fuel vehicles.

Despite its environmental promise and potential to reduce our oil dependency, the future of ethanol is uncertain. According to an article in Time magazine, recent studies have shown that the popularity of ethanol has created a "gold rush" mentality among farmers around the world, as they destroy carbon-absorbing forests and grasslands to make room for their corn crops. With deforestation already a serious problem, the biofuel boom could speed up the rate of global warming. Furthermore, the use of land to grow fuel has the side effect of raising food prices, which could be disastrous for the poor., Ironically, the grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year.

Flexible Fuel Vehicles Available

To search for available flexible fuel vehicles, check out this page from the U.S. Department of Energy. To determine if the vehicle you currently own is E85 compatible, check for an E85 decal on the fuel door or by the VIN. For instructions on how to read your vehicle VIN to determine if it is a flex-fuel vehicle, visit the E85Fuel.com Web site.

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