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To Use Less Oil, We Need To Think About Cars As Software Platforms

FastCoExist.com

Some time in the future–perhaps a decade from now–we’ll all be driving around in electric cars (probably). Battery technology will have evolved to allow longer trips on a single charge, and they’ll be significantly cheaper than they are now.

A decade from now, though? That’s a long way off. In meantime, we’re going to need other ways to reduce our dependence on oil–both because oil increases instability in the world (look at Russia’s current oil-fueled adventures) and because it contributes to climate change, a problem that really can’t wait.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle

Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.

Truck

DME poses a challenge to CNG

If there’s an Achilles’ heel to the efforts being made to introduce compressed natural gas (CNG) into the country’s vehicles, it is that somebody is going to come along with a liquid fuel that works much better.

CNG has many things going for it. Natural gas is now abundant and promises to stay that way for a long time. That puts the price around $2 a gallon, which is a big savings when gas costs $3.50 and diesel costs $3.70 per gallon. Trucks — mid-sized delivery trucks and big 18-wheelers — are the target market. Delivery vans usually operate out of fleet centers where a central compressor can be installed to service many vehicles. Meanwhile, pioneering companies such as Clean Energy Fuels are busy building an infrastructure at truck stops along the Interstate Highway System to service long-hauling tractor-trailers on their cross-country routes.

But there is a weakness. As a gas, CNG requires a whole new infrastructure. Compression tanks must be built at gas stations, much stronger than ordinary gas tanks and tightly machined, so gas does not escape. Even under compression, CNG has a much lower energy density than gasoline. This requires special $6,000 tanks that must still take up more space. In passenger vehicles they will devour almost all the trunk space, which is why vendors are concentrating on long-distance tractor-trailers.

As a result, there always seems the chance that some liquid derivative of methane is going to come along and push CNG off the market. Methanol has been a prime candidate since it is already manufactured in commercial quantities for industrial purposes. M85, a mixture of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline, is legal in the United States, but has not been widely adopted.

Now a new candidate has emerged in the long-distance truck competition — dimethyl ether or “DME.” Two methane ions joined by a single oxygen molecule, DME is manufactured from natural gas and has many of the same properties as methanol. It is still a gas at room temperature but can be stored as a liquid at four atmospheres or -11o F. It can also be dissolved as a gasoline or propane additive at a 30-70 percent ratio. In 2009 a team of university students from Denmark won the Shell Eco Marathon with a vehicle running on 100 percent DME.

So is it practical? Well, we’ll soon find out. Volvo has just announced it will release a version of its D13 truck in 2014 that runs on DME. At the same time, Volvo pushed back the launch of its natural gas version of the same line, meaning it may be changing its mind about which way the technology is going to go. In case you haven’t been keeping abreast, Volvo is now the largest manufacturer of heavy trucks in the world, having acquired Mack, America’s oldest truck company, in 2000.

So does that mean that CNG may turn out to be a dead end and Clean Energy Fuels is going to get stuck with a lot of unused compressor pumps? Well, hold on a minute. Technology does not stand still.

Last week at the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., Ford and BASF unveiled a new device for the Ford F-450 CNG fuel tank. It’s called a Metal Organic Framework (MOF), a complex of clustered metal ions built on a backbone of] rigid organic molecules that form one-, two-, or three-dimensional structures. Lots of surface area is created, making MOFs porous enough to hold large amounts of gaseous material such as methane.

MOFs create the possibility that on-board CNG tanks will not have to operate under extremely high pressure or extremely low temperatures. Like a metallic sponge the high-surface material soaks gas right up, where it can be easily dislodged as well. According to BASF and Ford, the same amount of natural gas that requires 3,600 pounds per square inch (PSI) can be stored in an MOF tank at close to 1,000 PSI. That makes a big difference when it comes to designing an automobile.

So does that mean natural gas is going to be able to hold its own against DME and other liquid competitors? Well, wait a minute, there’s still more. Not only is MOF technology good at storing methane, it also works with hydrogen! That means the hydrogen-fuel cell — still the favorite among Japanese manufacturers — may be able to work its way back in the game as well.

In fact, Ford isn’t playing any favorites. Equipped with its new MOF tanks, the F-450 will offer drivers a choice of seven — that’s right, seven — different fuel options using the same internal combustion engine. “Ford has no idea which of these fuels will make the most sense,” Ford’s Jon Coleman told Jason Hall of Motley Fool. “So we need to build vehicles that have the broadest capability and the broadest fuel types so our customers can choose for themselves.”

That’s the name of the game. It’s called Fuel Freedom.

JP Morgan

Rin Tin Tin, RINs and the price of ethanol

Is the son or daughter of Rin Tin Tin alive and well? For a while I thought he or she was, while catching up on my reading over the weekend. I kept reading articles about RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers), their possible impact on the ethanol market and relatively high ethanol prices, despite the apparent weakening of the ethanol market. There seemed to be RINs and more RINs on every page I turned! Because I hadn’t slept for two nights, I couldn’t really focus on the contents of the articles, but only on the dog Rin Tin Tin and his offspring. How many of you have done that? Come on, be honest. Don’t make me feel bad!

I felt guilty after it became obvious that my focus on Rin Tin Tin resulted from a tired brain and eyes. I am back to the complex world of RINs today. (I had a bit of sleep).

Okay, you ask, “What the hell are RINs?” They are sort of a pass at reflecting company fulfillment of government mandates concerning biofuels. For this article, think ethanol! They are issued at the point of ethanol production or the purchase of the fuel by companies. They are approved by the EPA. They reflect a credit that verifies that the required amount of ethanol has actually been blended into gasoline. Succinctly, the Renewable Fuel Legislation, now the law of the land, mandates that a Renewable Identification Number (RIN) must be attached to every produced or imported gallon of renewable fuel in the U.S. One more thing, RINs are separated from the batch of renewable fuel when it is blended with gasoline. This fact indicates compliance with the law and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs). Credits, at this juncture, can be used for trading purposes.

In 2012, before the EPA’s Nov. 2013 proposal to change RIN quotas and lower requirements for ethanol, the price of RINs was very volatile. Initially, they ranged around 1 to 10 cents a gallon. By spring of 2013, however, they were around $1.

Why the price increase and what does it bode for the price of ethanol in the future? Initially, the RINs were thought of as a way to encourage refiners to produce renewable fuels, like ethanol, and to “pay” for credits if they don’t “play” by  meeting fuel targets.

Part of the volatility and increase in costs of RINs, probably, has to do with speculation by banks and other financial institutions. Thomas D. O’Malley, chairman of PBF Energy, indicated in a recent New York Times article that financial institutions “helped transform an environmental program into a profit machine…These things were designed to monitor the inclusion of ethanol in the gasoline pool…They weren’t designed to become a speculative item. For the life of me, I can’t see the justification for it.” Interviews with members of the financial community, conducted by the New York Times, seem to suggest agreement with O’Malley.

According to the Times, speculation in RINs “could have consequences for consumers. In the end, energy analysts say, the outcome will be felt at the gas pumps — as the higher cost of the ethanol credits get tacked onto the price of a gallon of gasoline.” The Times reports that the “credits, which cost 7 cents each in January [2013], peaked at $1.43 in July, and [were] trading for 60 cents” in September. Jordan Godwin in the Barrel Blog indicated that like RINs in 2013, ethanol prices in 2014 are downright wacky. “In a matter of less than two months, ethanol prices went from six-month lows to eight-year highs.” Godwin and others blame delayed returning train cars during the winter and constraints on supply and production. I would add speculation by Wall Street and uncertainty as to the impact and longevity of EPA’s new regulations concerning the reduced mandates for ethanol and other biofuels. It’s a dilemma for proponents of alternative fuels. Less speculation regarding trading, sustained predictable production and refinement of the distribution system, (along with avoidance by some retailers and blenders to price ethanol well over costs) would facilitate more competition with gasoline at the pump. More predictable competition and larger sales at the pump of E15 and E85 would generate more private-sector fixes to the ethanol supply chain as well as likely stabilize prices and, over time, lower them. In light of ethanol’s benefits to the nation, wise folks might be asked to find policies and stimulate market behavior that permit the American people to have it both ways.

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Can graphene, the wonder material, build better batteries?

In 1962, German researcher Hanns-Peter Boehm suggested the versatile carbon atom, which can form long chains, might be configured into a chicken-wire pattern to create a stable molecule one atom thick.

The idea remained a theoretical construct without even a name until 1987, when researchers started calling it “graphene.” Basically, graphene is two-dimensional graphite, the pure carbon material that makes up “lead” pencils. The term was also used to describe the carbon nanotubes that were beginning to attract attention for their ultra-solid properties. For a while there was talk of elevators reaching up into space until it became clear that creating nanotubes without impurities that degrade their properties was currently out of the reach of mass production.

Then in 2004, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two researchers at The University of Manchester, came up with something a little more prosaic. They applied Scotch tape – yes, ordinary Scotch tape – to pure graphite and found they could peel off the single layer of carbon in the chicken-wire pattern that Boehm had described. They called this substance “graphene” and were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010.

The discovery of single-layer graphene has set off a stampede into research of its properties. Carbon is, after all, a versatile element, the basic building block of life that can also be packed into a material as hard as a diamond, which is also pure carbon. When stretched out into lattices a million times thinner than a human hair, however, it has the following remarkable properties:

  • It is the strongest material ever discovered, 300 times stronger than steel.
  • It is the most electrically conductive material ever discovered, 1,000 times more conductive than silicon.
  • It is the most thermally conductive material ever discovered.
  • It is bendable, shapeable and foldable.
  • It is completely transparent, although it does filter some light.

In short, graphene is now being touted as “material of the 21st century,” the substance that could bring us into an entirely new world of consumer products, such as cell phones that could be sewn into our clothes.

All this still remained somewhat theoretical, since no one had been able to produce graphene in dimensions larger than single tiny crystals. When these crystals were joined together, they lost most of their properties. Two weeks ago, however, Samsung announced that it has been able to grow a graphene crystal to the size of a wafer, somewhat on the same dimensions as the silicon wafers that produce computer chips. Thus, the first step toward a new world of electronics may be upon us. Graphene cannot be used as a semiconductor, since it is always “on” in conducing electricity, but combined with other substances it may be able to replace silicon, which is many researches believe is currently reaching its physical limits.

So what does this mean for the world of transportation, where we are always looking for new ways to construct automobiles and find alternative power sources to substitute for our gas tanks? Well, plenty.

Most obvious is the possibility of making cars out of much lighter-weight materials to reduce the power burden on engines. Chinese researchers recently came up with a graphene aerogel that is seven times lighter than air. A layer spread across 28 football fields would weigh only one ounce and a cubic inch of the material would balance on a blade of grass. All this would occur while it still retained its 300-times-stronger-than-steel properties. Graphene itself would not be used to construct cars, but it could be layered with other materials.

But the most promising aspect of graphene may be in the improvement of batteries. Lithium-ion batteries achieve an energy density of 200 Watt-hours-per-kilogram, which is five times the 40-Wh/k density of traditionally lead-acid batteries. That has won it the prime role in consumer electronics. But Li-ion batteries degrade over time, which is not a problem for a cell phone, but becomes prohibitive when the battery must undergo more than 1,000 charge cycles and is half the price of the car.

Lithium-sulfur batteries have long been thought to hold promise but they, too, deteriorate quickly, sometimes after only a few dozen charges. But recently, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Labs in California modified a lithium sulfur battery by adding sandwiched layers of a graphene. The result is a battery that achieves 400 Wh/k – double the density of plain lithium-ion – and has gone through 1,500 charging cycles without deterioration. This would give an electric car a range of more than 300 miles, which is in the lower range of what can be achieved with the internal combustion engine.

And so the effort to improve electric vehicles is moving forward, sometimes on things coming out of left field. If graphene really proves to be a miracle substance, look for Elon Musk to be discussing its wonders as he prepares to build that “megafactory” that is supposed to produce lithium-ion batteries capable of powering an affordable new version of the Tesla.

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Is butanol the next big thing in biofuels?

Fuel Freedom recently learned about a man named David Ramey who drove his 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego using 100 percent butanol, without making any adjustments to his engine.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be big news. But with the EPA now considering cutbacks in the 2014 biofuels mandate, some producers of ethanol are starting to turn to butanol as a way of getting around the limitations of the 10 percent “blend wall” that is threatening to limit ethanol consumption. This could be another breakthrough in our efforts to limit foreign oil.

Butanol is the alcohol form of butane gas, which has four carbons. Because it has a longer hydrocarbon chain, butane is fairly non-polar and more similar to gasoline than either methanol or ethanol. The fuel has been demonstrated to work in gasoline engines without any modification to the fuel chain or software.

Since the 1950s, most butanol in the United States has been manufactured from fossil fuels. But butanol can also be produced by fermentation, and that’s where another opportunity for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels exists.

The key is a bacterial strain called Clostridium acetobutylicum, also named the Weizmann organism for pioneering biological researcher Chaim Weizmann, who first used it to produce acetone from starch in 1916. The main use for the acetone was producing Cordite for gunpowder, but the butanol, a byproduct, eventually became more important.

Once set loose on almost any substratum, Clostridium acetobutylicum will produce significant amounts of butanol. Anything used to produce ethanol — sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava, plus non-food crops such as switchgrass and guayule and even agricultural byproducts such as bagasse, straw and corn stalks — can all be turned into butanol. (Of course, not all of these are economical yet.)

Given the modern-day techniques of genetic engineering, researchers are now hard at work trying to improve the biological process. In 2011, scientists at Tulane University announced they had discovered a new strain of Clostridium that can convert almost any form of cellulose into butanol and is the only known bacterium that can do it in the presence of oxygen. They discovered this new bacterium in, of all places, the fecal matter of the plains zebra in the New Orleans Zoo.

DuPont and BP are planning to make butanol the first product of their joint effort to develop next-generation biofuels. In Europe, the Swiss company Butalco is developing genetically modified yeasts from the production of biobutanol from cellulosic material. Gourmet Butanol, a U.S. company, is developing a process that utilizes fungi for the same purpose. Almost every month, plans for a new butanol production plant are announced somewhere in the world. Many refineries that formerly produced bioethanol are now being retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead. DuPont says the conversion is very easy.

What are the possible drawbacks? Well, to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline, butanol will require slight fuel-flow increases, although not as great as those required for ethanol and methanol. Butanol also may not be compatible with some fuel system components. It can also create slight gas-gauge misreadings.

While ethanol and methanol have lower energy density than butanol, both have a higher octane rating. This means butanol would not be able to function as an octane-boosting additive, as ethanol and methanol are now doing. There have been proposals; however, the proposals are for a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent butanol (E85B), which eliminate the fossil fuels from ethanol mixes altogether.

The only other objection that has been raised is that consumers may object to butanol’s banana-like smell. Other than that, the only problem is cost. Production of butanol from a given substratum of organic material is slightly lower than ethanol, although the increased energy content more than makes up for the difference.

Ironically, the EPA’s decision to cut back on the biofuels mandate for 2014 is now driving some refiners to convert to butanol, since its greater energy density will help it overcome the 10 percent “blend wall.”

“Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, an industry group, said butanol was a ‘drop-in’ fuel, able to be used with existing gasoline pipelines and other equipment because it does not have a tendency to take up water, as ethanol does,” The New York Times reported last October. “‘It’s more fungible in the existing infrastructure,’ he said. ‘You could blend it with gasoline and put it in a pipeline — no problem.’

“Butanol would also help producers get around the so-called blend wall, Mr. McAdams said…With the 10 percent limitation, ‘you don’t have enough gasoline to put the ethanol in,’ he said. ‘You don’t have that problem with butanol.’”

So here’s to butanol. It will be yet another big step in reducing our dependence in foreign fuels.

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Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.

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The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  http://blogs.platts.com/2014/03/25/eight-fillups/  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.