Ethanol popular despite mileage

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Service adviser at car dealership says “flex fuel” still novelty Ashley Dunkak contributing writer

This article was completed as an assignment for a Computer Assisted Reporting Class. This is the third part of a four-part series.

A less efficient fuel

Because of the mandates in the Energy Independence and Security Act, ethanol consumption in the United States has steadily increased. The biggest jump was going from 6,886 billion gallons in 2007 to 9,683 billion gallons in 2008. A new high of 12,858 billion gallons in consumption was reached in 2010, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center, 2,468 stations in the U.S. offer E85 gasoline and more than 8 million flex-fuel vehicles are on the roads. Of those stations, there are 40 in the state of Kansas.

Allie Gossack, service adviser at Dick Edwards Ford dealership in Manhattan said that many people who buy flex-fuel vehicles just end up running E10, which is the standard gasoline. She also said those cars seem to be more of an environmentalist statement than anything.

“It’s still kind of a novelty,” she said. “‘I drive a hybrid, I’m special.’ It’s more like bragging rights than anything.”

According to a map graphic in the 2011 Kansas Energy Conference PowerPoint, flex-fuel vehicles that can use mostly ethanol only account for 3 to 5 percent of vehicles in most of Kansas’ counties.

While the 2009 concurrent says that ethanol does a service to Kansans “through the use of additional ethanol blends at lower cost and through greater fuel efficiency to some vehicles using ethanol blends,” many calculations by reputable sources show that using ethanol is actually more expensive in the long run because it is a less efficient fuel and because the difference in cost does not compensate for the difference in efficiency.

A Forbes Magazine article from March 2011 gave the price of gas as $3.55 per gallon compared to $2.99 per gallon for ethanol. However, the article cautions consumers that “you’ll go fewer miles on E85 because of its lower energy content per BTU” and that “adjusting for its lower efficiency, AAA says the cost of E85 is actually higher.”

Fueleconomy.gov, a U.S. Department of Energy site and “official U.S. government source for fuel economy information” shows that in vehicles that can run E10 or E85, the latter gets far fewer miles to the gallon. For example, a 2011 Ford Fusion is listed as getting 23 miles to the gallon on gasoline but only 16 miles to the gallon on E85.

However, Burl Haigwood, director of program development for the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, said some consumers use E85 and eat the extra cost for bigger picture reasons like supporting agriculture and the local economy, putting fewer chemicals into the air they breath and making the country that much less dependent on foreign countries for oil.

“The line is economic, environmental, energy and national security,” said Haigwood. “Those are the values that don’t necessarily translate at the pump.”

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A corrosive fuel

Also, ethanol can have detrimental effects on engines, particularly older ones because it is corrosive, and it can cause a variety of problems.

Wallace found examples of this at multiple gas stations in north Texas in 2008, when some distributors used a higher ethanol blend than the 10 percent limit because ethanol was much cheaper than gasoline at that time.

While he said older cars are particularly susceptible, he has heard from people with newer cars who have also had problems.

“It gums up your fuel pumps,” Wallace said. “It can actually corrode the gaskets quickly. If you have an older car that has sediment built up in the gas tank, it’s so corrosive it’ll break all that stuff free and go through the fuel line systems. And so it’s about a $900 repair. But I actually found literally people that had BMWs they’d only owned for three or four months that had gummed up because of ethanol.”

Gossack, the dealership service adviser, said the mechanics often see problems from ethanol time, mainly because people put E85 in their non-flex fuel vehicles simply because it is the cheapest at the pump.

A polarizing fuel

While the current ethanol blend limit in gasoline is 10 percent, the EPA has approved a 15 percent ethanol blend for cars made after 2001, Haigwood said, adding that it will take time and consumer education to get that higher blend into the marketplace.

Over all, he said the Renewable Fuel Standard has been a success.

“What that did was replace 10 percent of the nation’s gasoline with a cleaner-burning, domestically produced fuel that stimulates rural America and generates $60 billion in economic activity,” Haigwood said. “It worked.”

Energy independence has been a talking point for many years, but in today’s world, it seems unrealistic.

“We’re a global economy,” Bergtold said. “It’s kind of awkward to say we’re going to be energy-independent or we’re going to be food-independent. We’re just too connected – financial markets, manufacturing, services, all our sectors are tied internationally.”

Haigwood said the government support of the ethanol industry fulfills people’s requests of creating jobs. He said the ethanol industry could have the same effect on the country that the oil industry did decades ago.

“Oil was what made our country great,” Haigwood said. “We took natural resources, we value-added them, we created economic activity from a natural resource – no different than corn or other agricultural products. The United States reached its peak oil production in the 1970s, and since then we’ve had to import more and more, so that economic activity isn’t in our country. Everything stems from creating the job. Economic activity has to create a job.”

Bergtold is not certain that ethanol is here to stay. After all, ethanol went away earlier in history as the price of gasoline dropped and finding alternative fuel became less of a pressing issue. Also, other options are in development, and one of those could emerge instead of ethanol.

“It’s still up in the air whether biofuels is going to be a dominant technology,” he said. “Other technologies are progressing along as well. There’s wind power, solar energy, hydrogen – which one of these or which combination of these is going to play out? And each of them has their advantages, disadvantages, costs and benefits associated with them.”

Wallace, with his electric car on the way, said he is not opposed to alternatives to gasoline or even ethanol, if the policy and implementation of it was different. His view of the United States’ use of ethanol right now, though, is that no one wants it except the government itself.

“It didn’t come about because the market wanted it,” Wallace said. “The oil companies don’t want it because it’s not as cost efficient as making gasoline. Car owners really don’t want it because their mileage goes down a little bit. Worse that that, the older car you have, the more likely it is to do damage to your car. The only people that want it is Congress; they’re the ones that put the mandate in place.”

He said, however, that he thinks the push for ethanol will be around for a while.

“As long as presidential campaigns go through Iowa first, we’re going to have ethanol because anybody running for president that goes into Iowa and says ‘I’m sorry, ethanol is just a scam,’ isn’t going to win the Iowa caucus – not going to happen,” Wallace said. “So it’s just one of these policies that everybody knows it’s wrong and nobody can get rid of it.”

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