E85 can help California cut emissions now

We’ve seen firsthand who drives flex-fuel vehicles and fills them up with E85 ethanol in California: They’re soccer moms, financiers, electricians and students. They’re all races and ethnicities, and they represent the whole socioeconomic spectrum. This is exactly the kind of diverse group needed to help California reach its goal of cutting emissions from oil and gasoline.

Last April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order calling for a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG), from 1990 levels, by 2040. To get there, the state is betting on all-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Silverado_grill2Any vehicle technology that reduces our reliance on oil should be applauded. But the problem with the fixation on zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) is that they’re out of reach for the vast majority of California residents. Even with more affordable EV models coming online, the overall high cost of such vehicles is a barrier for most people, as is the limited number of charging stations.

Brown wants 1 million electric vehicles on the road in California by 2020, and the state’s Air Resources Board predicts that by 2050, 87 percent of the state’s vehicles will need to be ZEVs to keep the state on its path toward GHG targets to halt climbing temperatures. State funds reflect those priorities: Under the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (CVRP), people who buy or lease an EV or plug-in hybrid can get up $5,000 from the state, although income limitations have recently been implemented. And the state Energy Commission awarded $18.7 million in grants to expand the hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

Only a handful of Californians benefit from this largesse: Half of the nation’s 330,000 EVs are registered in California, of about 28 million total automobiles.

The state is ripe for fuel choice, which could solve a lot of problems at once. By making better use of cheaper, cleaner, high-octane E85, and the 1 million flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) already on the road in the state, California could achieve short-term reductions in both smog-forming emissions (like nitrogen oxides) and GHG (like carbon dioxide), without massive taxpayer subsidies. According to a white paper by Propel Fuels, the Sacramento-based ethanol retailer, adoption of E85 has been on the rise: Drivers used 11.1 million gallons in 2014, up from 1.6 million gallons in 2009, a 600 percent increase. Yet more awareness of its benefits is needed.

E85Rob Elam, the founder and CEO of Propel, said the state’s focus on EVs and hydrogen is a “flaw. It’s an oversight. It’s just a mistake. Which is OK … we can fix that mistake, but clearly that money [state incentives] is a very, very regressive tax, essentially, that is pouring into West Los Angeles and Santa Clara County, because that’s where the CVRP refunds are.

“The E85 drivers are very middle-class. … about 50 percent of our customers in the Central Valley are Latino. The E85 customer base looks like California. It provides real value and opportunity for people who otherwise would have no access to low-carbon transportation options. None.”

People living in rural areas, who drive gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs long distances to and from work, have a huge stake in this debate about which fuels and technology should be emphasized. As do people living in urban areas, where minorities and the poor suffer disproportionately from health problems caused by air pollution, about half of which comes from transportation in the state.

Just before he led a California delegation to the landmark Paris climate talks in December, Brown told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes:

We are fossil fuel. That is modernity. Modernity has two elements: individualism and oil. Now to move toward a more enlightened, sustainable world, we have to transform, with lots of technology, with even differences with the way we see the world and how we live in the world … that’s gonna take decades.

It doesn’t have to. We can use fuels and vehicles that reduce emissions right now, or wait until zero-emission vehicles constitute a significant portion of our vehicle fleet. The most vulnerable among us can’t wait that long.

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