California Methanol Demonstration

In the history of methanol use in the U.S., the California Methanol Demonstration was the most extensive methanol program in the nation. Announced in 1989, and supplemented by initiatives in smaller jurisdictions throughout Southern California, the California Energy Commission-sponsored experiment was developed to test the viability of methanol as a vehicle fuel, in order to reduce heavy smog. Methanol was designated the fuel of choice due to much lower vehicle emissions generated by its combustion.

Initial efforts focused on metropolitan transportation and fleet vehicles, with some city buses and methanol-powered government vehicles the first to be rolled out in the experiment. By 1990, all of the major gasoline companies had agreed to pump methanol in a select few stations for the project, and designated fleets of conventional gas vehicles were converted to run on high methanol blends.

The demonstration showed that performance of the methanol vehicles was as good or better than comparable gasoline models, although methanol eventually proved to be more corrosive than gasoline, requiring certain adaptations in the engines of the time. Nevertheless, largely due to the lack of convenient refueling infrastructure, the methanol vehicles failed to catch on. However, the project prompted further tests of “flex-fuel” vehicles that could run on both gasoline and methanol on California roads.

The flex-fuel project was more successful. Retail gasoline stations agreed to install more M85 pumps, and hundreds of flex-fuel Escorts, Tauruses and Crown Victoria LTDs were built and tested by the state. Government fleets and Los Angeles County buses were flex-fuel, and Ford, Chrysler and General Motors began selling production flex-fuel sedans, mostly for car rentals, in the early 1990s. At their peak in 1997, more than 21,000 M85 flex-fuel vehicles were on the road, 15,000 of them in California, which by now had more than 100 public and private flex-fuel fueling stations.

However, as a result of declining gasoline prices and the introduction of cleaner gasoline, methanol lost momentum as a fuel and disappeared quietly in subsequent years.