Altruism Aside, Is Ethanol A Competitive Alternative Fuel?

I was a bit under the weather this past weekend. I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some reading; something assumedly simple- the relatively recent literature concerning the ability of ethanol, particularly E85, to compete with gasoline and the capacity of consumers to make rational decisions in their choice of alternative fuels.

By Sunday night, apart from watching the Denver Broncos happily beat New England on TV, and the amusing dialogue and extensive media time generated by Seattle’s cornerback, Richard Sherman, concerning his athletic and his academic prowess; I spent about 10 hours reviewing several well cited pieces concerning the price relationship between ethanol and gasoline. I also read the intense, often seemingly less than civil debate in papers authored by two professors at Iowa State (Dermot Hayes and Xiadong Du)  and two at MIT (Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith) concerning methodology associated with defining the relationship between ethanol and gasoline prices. (The Iowa and MIT faculty vigorously attacked each other, sometimes personally, over mistaken attribution of research funding sources. More important, the Iowa folks generally argued that their data suggested a link between ethanol production and the price of gasoline. They indicated that, as ethanol production increased the price of gasoline decreased relative to the price of crude oil.

The MIT folks poo poo’d their distant colleagues’ findings. They indicated that their empirically based models illustrate only a statistically insignificant set of relationships concerning ethanol, gasoline and crude oil prices. They also opined that the Iowa writers misapplied the crack ratio –the relationship of gasoline to crude oil prices- and did not use or mistakenly used the crack spread ratio (the weighted average of the gasoline and distillate products produced by a barrel of crude oil minus the cost of crude). Put in another way, what the Iowa writers recorded was correlation not causation. (I know the etymology but we need to help the economists among us find a better set of terms than crack spread and crack ratio. For a minute, I thought that the texts described a line up at a police station or FBI statistics about drug use.)

What can we learn from recent literature about the effect of ethanol production and gasoline prices at the pump?

1. Most independent experts, not affiliated with advocacy groups, seem willing to support as fact that increased ethanol use, at times, will lower the price of gasoline or slow the increase in the price of gasoline. But the caveat is “somewhat.” They disagree on how much on either side of zero. The recent conventional wisdom, stimulated by the Iowa study that ethanol has and likely will reduce the wholesale price by $.89 cents to $1.09 per gallon seems wrong. It appears to reflect an overstatement based on analyses and models that do not accommodate the many complex variables affecting price and costs (e.g. costs of refining, rapid changes in the costs of corn, the costs of distribution, the lack of infrastructure, the unanticipated increases or decreases in costs of crude oil based on investor speculation, escalation or de-escalation of tension in Middle East, uncertain federal policy, etc.). If I were a betting person, I would place my bet on Knittel and Smith’s conclusions that, over time, the price impact of ethanol at the pump on gasoline prices is likely marginal at best.

2. However, to be fair, some scholars and practitioners in the energy business believe that if gasoline is blended with a larger proportion of ethanol (e.g. E85), the price of a gallon of fuel could well drop, given the idiosyncrasies of the present market.  If this occurs and the reduction appears to consumers as beneficial, a number of observers think that owners of flex fuel vehicles (new or converted) could be enticed to switch to E85. What they generally don’t know, is the cross over point where alternative fuels like E85 become a viable option to drivers because the prices seem to be a good deal. A smart and astute participant in a recent forum on alternative fuels indicated that “people drive to COSTCO or Wal-Mart to save 5-8 cents a gallon on gasoline. Why wouldn’t they switch to E85 blends, if they reflected similar or indeed larger savings and fuel stations were accessible?”

Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t! If the price is low enough, many drivers will likely engage in personal opportunity costing. But what is low enough? Getting gas at Wal-Mart and Costco is different from getting E85. Gas is a familiar product to most drivers. Consumers of E85 will have to surmount doubts over product safety, stimulated, I believe erroneously, by groups such as the AAA. Further, because E85 will get fewer miles per gallon, drivers will probably think about perceived price savings in the context of miles per gallon and extra trips to the fuel station (If they forget to do the personal math, they will be reminded to do so by oil companies).

3. Uncertainty exists concerning how much consumers will pay for ethanol based on personal preferences or commitments to societal well-being, what I call the altruism thing.

As one author put it, “ …the demand for ethanol (E85) as a substitute (E10) is sensitive to relative fuel prices: a  $.10 per gallon increase in ethanol’s price relative to gasoline leads to a 12-16% decrease in quantity of ethanol demanded. Price responses are considerably smaller, however, than they would be if households had identical willingness to pay for ethanol as a gasoline substitute and… results imply that some households are willing to pay a premium for ethanol.”

Why? Maybe to improve the environment, provide support for farmers, to express concern over national security, etc. A recent report from Brazil indicates that some Brazilians are willing to pay more for alternative fuels because of what seem to be altruistic reasons. Before we say hallelujah, I should note that we don’t really know the numbers seeking salvation. They are not your average household but rather as one economist notes they are likely “marginal” households in terms of numbers. Further, several respected survey firms in the U.S. doubt that goals related to the larger community or nation, even if consumers articulate them in their living rooms, will overcome large differences between the price of E85 and gasoline, if they occur.

Similarly, altruism or civic values will not overcome fear of engine damage or the need for relatively long trips to fuel stations to secure alternative fuels. The pews, at least until we know more, probably will remain filled with a proportionately large share of guilty drivers on Saturday or Sunday.

The Fuel Freedom Foundation is involved in three state pilot projects aimed at converting existing cars to flex fuel cars; cars that will permit their owners to use natural gas based fuel such as ethanol and, when it is legal, methanol. Hopefully the pilot projects, combined with strategic federal, state, foundation and private sector supported research, will expand knowledge concerning consumer decisions and variables such as the importance of price differentials, altruism, distance, access, etc.

A study supported by Fuel Freedom Foundation recently completed by the respected independent Resources for the Future optimistically noted that “…we see alternative pathways for bring a lower-cost E85 to the pump. If and when ethanol produced by the newly patented, NG-driven Celanese process becomes available, owners of FFVs could realize substantial cost savings, up to $0.83/gge in 2015. If and when cellulosic ethanol becomes available at projected cost for full-scale productions, owners of FFFs could realize similar cost savings.”

Sleep easy! Good Times are coming for the nation and the consumer.

2 replies
  1. Jeff Lawrence
    Jeff Lawrence says:

    Given the plunge in oil prices to start 2015, I have to believe that alternative fuels (bio, e85, hybrids, battery, solar, etc) are all dropping off the radar in terms of focus and funding. Oil won’t stay cheap forever, but if prices stay low for awhile, like a year or so, R&D on alt fuels and battery technology will be limited unfortunately.

    • Landon Hall
      Landon Hall says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Agreed: Low oil prices are pushing alternative fuels and vehicles off the radar. Research and innovation needs to happen independent of gyrating prices.

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