Is Ethanol / E85 Fuel the Solution?
I've recently received a number of emails calling for me to Kick the Oil Habit by supporting E85 which is a liquid fuel made up of 85% ethanol and 15% regular gasoline. Having previously had my doubts about ethanol I emailed fellow blogger the Engineer Poet seeking his opinion. A large part of this resulting post is based directly on his reply and as such the credit belongs to him.
So is E85 fuel the answer to America's (and the world's) addiction to oil?
E85 fuel is not the solution. It is not even a part of the solution, it is a part of the problem. Here's why, in a nutshell:
All US vehicles can burn 10% ethanol (E10), but the US does not even produce half as much ethanol as universal E10 would require. We make about 5 billion gallons of ethanol, but use 140 billion gallons of gas.
E85 and "flex fuel" is a loophole for the automakers to sell guzzlers without having to pay CAFE penalties. It makes the problem worse. Ending the loophole probably means ending E85, because there is no other reason for it to exist.
Since the best estimate is that every gallon-equivalent of ethanol takes about 4/5 of a gallon-equivalent of other fossil fuel to make it, each gallon of E85 really represents about 0.6 gallons-equivalent of various fossil fuels. Since most flex-fuel vehicles get roughly 2/3 the mileage on E85 as they do on gasoline, they burn about 90% as much fossil energy even at their best.
Even if we can use "cellulosic ethanol" to reduce the inputs of fossil-derived fertilizer and whatnot, we can't make enough no matter what we do. The efficiency of the average gasoline-powered vehicle is about 15%, and we just can't grow enough inputs to make up for throwing 85% of our produced energy away. The most efficient use of biomass is in local combined heat and power plants, not as a feedstock for ethanol.
Low corn prices and high oil prices, and a government subsidy of 51 cents per gallon have fuelled unprecedented growth of the ethanol industry. In the case of the U.S. ethanol industry, fossil fueled trucks ship the fuel halfway across the country from the population sparse corn belt to population and car dense states like California and Texas. Science magazine found only a 13% reduction in CO2 emissions for bioethanol over gasoline (and only 11% for E85 fuel). U.S. government federal records show a single ADM corn processing plant in Clinton, Iowa generated nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds in 2004. The EPA considers an ethanol plant as a "major source" of pollution if it produces more than 100 tons of any one pollutant per year. From an emissions standpoint it is far preferable to drive a fuel efficient gasoline car than a low efficiency flex fuel vehicle running on E85.
E85 fuel is not a solution. It is a distraction, like hydrogen vehicles. Further, every E85 vehicle is also a gasoline-compatible vehicle. It will maintain demand for petroleum as long as it is on the road. If you want to end oil addiction you have to get rid of the things which use it.
E85 ethanol fuel may make a small contribution now, but it is a dead end. If we want to really be free of fossil fuels (including imported oil), we have to re-think things as completely as changing from riding horses to driving motor cars.
Ethanol has already created an addiction of its own. The farmers and agribusiness interests which got into it found it hugely profitable, and they have big investments in its continuation. Even if you developed a better way of using corn today, you'd still have a lot of money lobbying to use it for ethanol, and even force it to be used for ethanol.
This is already a race between technologies which can make us independent of fossil fuel, and technologies which get subsidy money. In that race, the subsidy seems to win every time. At least 43 percent of Archer Daniels Midland's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. For every $1 of profit earned by ADM's ethanol operation (the largest in the U.S.), it costs taxpayers $30. If you subsidize a technology which can only replace half our gasoline (and none of our diesel, jet fuel, or anything else), you're probably going to be stuck with it.
A hobbyist wrote an article about his home-built plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). He published this article in Mother Earth News... in 1978.
We don't need any new technology. We could be building these cars today. Heck, we could have been building them in 1995 (when the CARB ZEV mandate came in)... or maybe even 1985. They would have been crude, but they would have gotten the job done. We can do far better today, of course.
People finally got fed up and started building their own PHEV's out of Toyota Priuses. It's time to quit the excuses, both making them and accepting them.
CAFE regulations utterly failed to contain U.S. motor-fuel consumption. This is not opinion, this is historical fact. Now the E85 fuel campagin wants to do the same thing again, but "reduce" consumption with E85 instead of directly cutting gallons-per-mile. You'll get the same result as before - if driving doesn't cost more, people will continue to drive as much or more.
There are roughly 200 million light-duty vehicles in the USA. One recent news item says that there will be all of 6 million flex-fuel vehicles by 2007. That's a whole 3%.
The average flex-fuel vehicle is a guzzling truck (because they get the biggest CAFE preference from it). If those trucks get 13 MPG on E85, and they drive the national average of 13,000 miles/year, those 6 million vehicles would consume 5.1 billion gallons of ethanol. That's roughly the same as the total production capacity of the nation.
The E85 fuel campaign is currently sponsoring a road trip to highlight the usage of E85, but also the difficulty of driving a car solely on E85 due to its lack of availability.
the electric Tesla Roadster - 250 mile range, one cent a mile, 0-60 in 4 seconds, 130 mph top speed - photo from Autoblog Green
However, had this trip been made in a Tesla Roadster or tZero from AC Propulsion, it could have instead highlighted how EASY it is to get electricity wherever you are... even if you never stop at a filling station! Using non-toxic lithium-ion batteries they have a 250 mile range, charging overnight from an electric outlet.
E85 fuel is a distraction, a diversion, a red herring. Just as the switch to "hydrogen economy" (remember that?) was before it. Both require huge investment, new infrastructure and will not lead to a post-oil economy. The hydrogen economy was promoted principally by both automakers and oil companies as a stalling strategy to avoid having to change the way they currently do business. Oil companies were also aware in the unlikely event that the hydrogen economy did take off (with huge taxpayer subsidies) that they would be supplying hydrogen produced from natural gas which they were already profitting from. The automakers sat around lamenting the fact they couldn’t start to build cars as there are hardly any hydrogen filling stations and the energy companies would not open commercial hydrogen filling stations as there is no demand for them. While appearing to want to do something, both the automakers and energy companies continued for a few more years with business as usual.
The Nissan Armada promoted on the E85 fuel site - with no fuel economy figures indicated
The campaign for E85 fuel is somewhat similar. The automakers are eager to produce flex fuel vehicles which require a relatively cheap modification to the highly profitable gas guzzling SUVs they already produce. By backing E85 fuel they can continue to produce the highly inefficient vehicles while appearing to be green (as seen in GM's Live Green Go Yellow campaign). Car and Driver magazine estimates the CAFE loophole could have saved GM more than $200 million in fines in 2005 alone.
As GM admits the consumer can choose “to operate on gasoline or on a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. So, you can choose the fuel that's best for you. That's good to know, because E85 fuel is not yet widely available.” In other words in the vast majority of cases your new flex fuel vehicle will still be running on regular gas. Charter members of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), which promotes E85 fuel, when it was set up in June 2000 include GM, DaimlerChrsyler, and Ford.
Meanwhile E85 fuel is also been promoted by organisations such as the National Corn Growers Association, as well as regional and state corn growers organisations, associated agribusinesses and biofuel companies. All of which have a commercial interest in promoting E85 fuel. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a clearinghouse on political donations, the agribusiness sector has funneled more than $190 million into federal election campaigns since the 2000 election cycle. In the NEVC’s bylaws its purpose is described as to "ensure that as decisions regarding the future of America’s use of alternative forms of transportation fuels are being made, ethanol has a role in the nation’s alternative transportation fuel market and support the expanded use of ethanol" and to "advance legislative proposals" to this effect. This seems to be regardless of whether ethanol/ E85 fuel is the best or is even a good solution to our energy challenges.
As the Engineer Poet points out in this post, burning fuel for transportation is very inefficient way of using energy. Whether you are fed up with the current use of petroleum for transportation for environmental, political or financial reasons E85 fuel is simply not the answer. What we need is a step change, as represented by moving from using gas burning vehicles to electric vehicles.
To encourage this, I urge you to sign this online plug in hybrid campaign asking automakers to produce plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
Autoblog Green's exclusive interview with Tesla Motors' chairman
Tesla Roadster Video
Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) - the Largest U.S. Ethanol Producer
Vinod Khosla Debunked
Car and Driver Magazine on the Promise of Energy Independence through Ethanol
USA Today on the Ethanol Debate
Cutting Down Borneo's Rainforests to Make BioFuels