The pitch to run our cars and trucks on alcohol fuel sounds irresistible: It would eliminate most U.S. gasoline consumption; avoid the costs, delays and environmental impact of new oil refineries; and keep control of our fuel in America and out of often-hostile foreign hands.
President Bush cited alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night as one of the technologies that should get government investment. He sees it as part of the solution to "a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."
Bush also highlighted research to develop better batteries for gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and accelerated development of electric cars powered by pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells.
Ethanol fuel -- in the form of E85, a mix of 85% grain alcohol and 15% gasoline -- is the only one of those immediately available. E85, using ethanol made in the USA from corn, isn't a science experiment or pipe dream. It's real fuel, sold now, and 5 million vehicles already are on the road with the systems needed to burn it.
Yet, like so many magic bullets aimed at America's energy dragon, E85 is in danger of inflicting a flesh wound on the beast it's meant to kill. The drawbacks: It's almost impossible to find outside the Midwest. It contains less energy than gasoline, so you'd have to fill your tank more often. And you'd almost certainly have to buy a new car or truck to use it.
"The technology and the economics aren't there yet" to produce enough ethanol for a massive switch to E85, says Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), a trade group that represents ethanol producers.
Still, the potential of alcohol-based fuel is tantalizing.
Ethanol yields roughly 26% more energy than it takes to produce it, according to a just-published study by the University of California at Berkeley. That's because corn grows using free sunlight and because farming has gotten very efficient. Gasoline provides only about 84% of the energy required to produce it, the study says.
In fact, a wholesale switch to E85 and other fuels made largely from plants instead of petroleum is a key, early step in a program that could eliminate U.S. gasoline consumption by 2050, according to Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Bush promised to "fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol" in his State of the Union address. He said advanced ethanol production and other new technologies will help the U.S. "replace more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."
Middle East countries account for about 22% of total U.S. oil imports, Energy Information Administration data show, or roughly 14% of the oil used in the USA.
As a replacement for much of the oil we use, E85 is being hoisted like a battle flag, discussed as if it were an exotic potion, even supported by your tax dollars in the energy bill signed into law last summer.
That law requires an increase of about 80% in the use of so-called renewable fuels, mainly ethanol, by 2012. Refiners are required to blend 7.5 billion gallons of it with gasoline. And the government provides a tax credit up to $30,000 for gas stations that convert pumps to E85 and similar alternative fuels.
Production is limited
Reaching the potential is limited by the production available. After doubling in size, then doubling again the past few years, the ethanol industry consists of 95 U.S. plants that produced 4 billion gallons last year. That's only enough to replace 3% of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline the USA burned last year. And it's almost ridiculously far from the 119 billion gallons of ethanol necessary for a nationwide switch to E85.
An additional 32 ethanol plants are under construction, and nine are being expanded. That will add about 1.8 billion more gallons annually but still leaves ethanol a bit player in the fuel game. "We need to get serious about making ethanol available," Ford Motor CEO Bill Ford says. He pledges to boost production of E85-compatible vehicles 25% this year, to 250,000.
Ford showed an ethanol-electric hybrid SUV at the Washington, D.C., auto show in January that would burn E85 instead of gasoline to power the internal combustion engine. Ford Executive Vice President Anne Stevens says the E85-burning hybrid Escape is "a development program, not a research program." Development is the term automakers use when they plan to put the vehicle on sale within a few years.
All modern vehicles can burn a widely sold fuel, often called gasohol, that's 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. But only specially outfitted cars and trucks can use E85. They are called flexible-fuel vehicles -- or FFVs -- and are designed to burn straight gasoline, E85 or any gas/ethanol blend in between.
Though they cost at least an extra $150 each to manufacture, they are often priced the same as conventional gas-only vehicles. You'd probably not even notice if you bought one.
Ford says the 5 million FFVs already on the road, if fueled exclusively by E85, would cut petroleum use more than 10 million gas-electric hybrid Escapes would. General Motors, pledging to build more than 400,000 FFVs annually starting this year, says a barrel of oil is saved for every 37 gallons of E85 used.
Automakers get credit toward meeting federal fuel-economy regulations if they sell FFVs, so the vehicles will get built and sold in increasing numbers. GM recently made V-6 engines in some Chevrolet Impalas and Monte Carlos E85-compatible. The automaker's important new 2007 SUVs being launched this year burn E85. So do Nissan Titan full-size pickups and some Chrysler and Dodge sedans, minivans and SUVs. Ford just added its best-selling F-150 pickup to the list.
In Brazil, poster child for ethanol fuel, FFVs are routine and the nationwide standard is E25, 25% ethanol. Fuels range up to E100, which is all ethanol. Ethanol there is made from sugar cane, which requires less work and fertilizer to grow than corn.
"In Brazil, there's a much cheaper cost of labor, much looser environmental regulations, a whole litany of things" that make it easier and cheaper to produce and sell ethanol fuel, says Greene, the policy analyst. Because Brazil is warm, motorists there "don't have the cold-start problems we do with pure ethanol," he notes. The higher the alcohol concentration, the harder it can be to ignite the fuel in cold weather.
Why the USA might not embrace E85
Despite Brazil's experience, don't expect the USA to embrace E85 fuel, because:
You can't find it. Where the ethanol is, people aren't. Only 500 fuel stations sell E85 and most of those are in the lightly populated Midwest, which grows the corn to make the alcohol. The heavily populated coasts have only a few E85 outlets, and most are reserved for private fleets.
You'd probably have to buy a new car or truck to use it. The FFVs already out there are roughly 2% of all vehicles on the road, leaving Americans to replace the other 98% with new vehicles that have the corrosion-resistant fuel systems, special fuel injectors, sensors and computer controls, and hardened and coated engine parts necessary to survive alcohol's corrosive onslaught and compensate for lower energy content.
You'd have to fill up more often. You'd be at the pump every four or five days instead of once a week. Ethanol contains about two-thirds as much energy as gasoline. The higher the concentration of alcohol in fuel, the more fuel you have to use to go the same distance. A vehicle would burn 1.4 times as much E85 as straight gasoline, the U.S. Department of Energy says.
A survey by luxury automaker Lexus found that the biggest reason people said they'd consider a fuel-saving Lexus hybrid vehicle was that its improved mileage meant fewer stops at the filling station. Environmental benefits and reducing petroleum use were secondary. E85 vehicles could have a big marketing challenge against that kind of attitude.
Your vehicle wouldn't make the most of the fuel. FFVs are able to burn E85 but are tuned for best performance on gasoline because it's abundant and E85 isn't. An engine would have to be designed from scratch to fully exploit E85's higher octane and overcome its inferior energy content.
"If you were using 100% E85, you could tune the engine and ... maybe get 2% more power," says Ken Kridner, the GM engineer who helped adapt GM V-6s to E85 capability. The Energy Department is more optimistic, suggesting gains of 3% to 5%.
Despite the barriers, the ethanol and auto industries are keen on E85's promise. "E85 is going to be a much more significant market for us down the road," RFA's Dinneen says. "But you have to get more vehicles on the road that can use E85, and you need more outlets."
"E85 holds great promise for fuel diversity, but we need to move from hundreds of fuel stations to thousands," says Curt Magleby, manager of public policy for Ford Motor. Ford and ethanol producer VeraSun are offering to help pay the $3,000 to $5,000 it would cost a fuel-station owner, in the simplest case, to convert a gasoline pump to one that dispenses E85. Even so, a station owner might have to fight his gasoline supplier.
Some major oil companies refuse to allow alternative-fuel pumps near the regular gasoline pumps, if they allow them at all. The oil companies don't have control over the quality and consistency of E85 so don't want it sold under the big service station canopies that carry the oil company brand names and logos, they say.
"Alternatives to gasoline can succeed," the California Energy Commission says in an analysis of ethanol and other non-petroleum fuels. "Unfortunately, a chicken-and-egg situation exists. Public acceptance and a healthy level of consumer demand are needed to make alternative-fuel vehicles viable, but a network of refueling facilities must also be in place. Oil companies are reluctant to build such facilities when vehicles themselves are not abundant. It is difficult to compete with tens of thousands of gasoline pumps and tens of millions of gasoline vehicles."