In a divisive fuel economy debate, there’s agreement on need for higher octane

The nation’s fuel economy standards have been the subject of heated debate, in Washington and beyond.

There’s one element of the discussion that has bridged the political divide, however: the potential for higher-octane fuels to satisfy the interested parties, not to mention benefit the country in a variety of ways.

Octane — and specifically the prospect of raising the national minimum octane standard — was the subject of a congressional hearing on April 13. Several witnesses testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on the Environment.

You can read the transcripts and supporting documents here. And watch the whole thing:

The takeaway was that elevating octane levels in America’s gasoline is not only a positive step, it’s necessary for the next generation of vehicles to continue improving on fuel efficiency.

“We believe increasing the minimum octane level in U.S. gasoline for new vehicles will be a win for all industries and, most importantly, consumers,” said Dan Nicholson, vice president of global propulsion at General Motors.

“We need to work together to improve the fuel in the U.S. market to take advantage of engine designs that are more efficient and provide significant large-scale fuel economy improvements and corresponding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Improve the fuels” is what Fuel Freedom has been saying for a long time now. And we’ll keep saying it during a pivotal juncture coming up for the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. The federal government is deciding what the standards should be for all cars sold in the U.S. for model years 2022 through 2025. Earlier this year the EPA declared that the ambitious standards set by the Obama administration (54.5 mpg by 2025, or about 37 mpg under real-world driving conditions) was not attainable.

And so the process is being revisited. It’s not an overstatement to say that CAFE —which originated in the 1970s as a law passed to counter the OPEC oil embargo — is one of the most important programs in the country when it comes to saving consumers money and reducing our national security vulnerability due to oil’s monopoly in transportation. According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, if fully implemented, by 2030 the CAFE standards would save drivers $140 billion; create hundreds of thousands of jobs; and reduce U.S. oil consumption by 3 million barrels a day.

Without better fuels, automakers are limited in their options to squeeze out fuel efficiency wherever they can: They’ve already worked on downsizing turbocharged engines (such as the Ford EcoBoost), focused on climate control systems in vehicles, and taken weight out of vehicle bodies and frames.

Vehicle design and technology will soon reach its outer limits, without turning attention to the fuels and making them more efficient as well.

Octane is a measurement of the maximum compression that a fuel can tolerate before it ignites. If the fuel ignites prematurely, it can cause engine “knock,” and possibly damage. Higher compression improves performance in the vehicle and also fuel efficiency, but it requires a higher octane rating. Most gas stations have 87 as the minimum octane rating.

Raising the minimum standard to what is now the threshold in Europe would “not overwhelm or necessitate an overhaul of the fuels system,” said R. Timothy Columbus, counsel to the National Association of Convenience Stores and Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America, and “implementing a national octane standard would further support automakers’ efforts to reduce emissions via the use of higher efficiency engines that can run on high octane fuel.”

Nicholson, speaking at a Society of Automotive Engineers conference the day before the congressional hearing, said a new higher-octane fuel standard doesn’t have to mean customers pay more at the pump. According to Automotive News, he said that a 3 percent fuel economy gain could be achieved for less than a 3 percent increase in the cost of fuel.

A 3 percent fuel economy improvement might not sound like much, but engineers struggle for every tenth of a percent gain as they design, engineer, test and calibrate vehicles.

“Fuels and engines have always been a system. That’s how you have to think about it. I think America deserves as good a gasoline as Europe,” Nicholson said.

Generally, refineries can elevate octane levels in gasoline by further refining the fuel; by adding chemicals; or by boosting the ethanol content. Ethanol is the highest-octane, cleanest, healthiest additive in the marketplace.

“In 2016 alone, biofuels displaced 510 million barrels of oil,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, which promotes ethanol. “Overall, American ethanol has increased our energy security, reduced our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, created American jobs, and improved our nation’s environment.”

There is an appetite among lawmakers to find a way to combine the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets the total amount of ethanol to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply, and the CAFE standards.

“By transitioning to higher octane blends and vehicles whose engines are designed to maximize efficiency from those fuels, we could both incorporate more ethanol into fuel supply while also increasing miles per gallon,” said Congressman Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Octane is having its moment, and it could play a huge role in the vital fuel economy standards being written right now.

 

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