Minnesota, land of many lakes and E85 pumps

Minnesota is nicknamed “the Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but it actually has 11,842 of them.

The state also has a lot more ethanol pumps than most people realize: There are 292 locations in 205 cities where drivers can fill up on E85 ethanol blend, according to That’s more than any other state. By comparison, California, which has about seven times the population, has only 88 E85 stations. The state where the Los Angeles Lakers call home also has only about 3,000 lakes, but who’s counting.

It’s no accident that Minnesota is ahead of the national curve on ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The state is No. 3 in the country in corn production, behind only Iowa and Nebraska. Minnesota also produces a lot of ethanol, and several plants sell directly to retailers. The relatively short supply chain between product and consumer has made the price point for Minnesota ethanol very attractive: The average price per gallon of E85 on Wednesday was $1.95, 21.1 percent cheaper than E10.

(For drivers who place cost above all other fuel factors, E85 needs to be about 20 percent cheaper than E10 to break even, when the reduced energy content of E85 is taken into account.)

It’s not just bountiful crops and plentiful fueling stations that make E85 so prevalent in Minnesota: It’s the years of momentum built by state officials, who have made the case that ethanol is not only cost-effective, but cleaner and better for air quality and the environment than gasoline.

Robert Moffitt, communications director for the American Lung Association in Minnesota, based in St. Paul, says the chapter has been touting the health benefits of ethanol since 1998, when the Department of Energy selected the Twin Cities area, Chicago and Denver as pilot markets for E85.

“This was at a time when Minnesota had four or five E85 stations,” Moffitt said. “We really did not have a lot in those days. But they just wanted to see whether E85 was promoted in an area, would people use it? If we built it, would they come? And we found out that they would.”

Minn car3Association staffers drive around the state in two alt-fuel vehicles: A Ford Fusion flex-fuel (which is pictured as “Clean Air on a Stick,” a nod to all the foods-on-a-stick at the Minnesota State Fair) and a Ford F-150 flex-fuel. “We have never put gasoline in those vehicles. They have run exclusively on E85 ever since we got them.”

Moffitt says biofuels aren’t a partisan issue like they are in other states. Years ago, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura (the wrestler known as “Jesse the Body,” and the “Predator” actor who made the line “Ain’t got time to bleed” immortal) expressed skepticism about promoting ethanol.

“It wasn’t quite getting through to him,” Moffitt said. “And then the commissioner of agriculture told him, ‘We wouldn’t have to import nearly as much oil from the Middle East.’ And he kind of looked up and smiled and said, ‘I like that.’ That was reason enough for Jesse.”

Despite all the benefits of E85 as a way to reduce consumption of oil, Moffitt acknowledges that “price is always going to be a deciding factor for a lot of people.” But expand the argument to the overall economy, and E85 makes even more sense.

“It’s still an excellent bargain, and it’s still a fuel that helps support our local economy,” he said. “When you purchase E85 instead of gasoline, not only are you helping to prevent about, on average, 5 tons of air pollutants going into the air per year per vehicle, but more of that dollar that you spend is going back into your community, it’s going back into the farming communities, it’s going back to the local retailers, it stays here in the U.S. And of course E85 has the great ability that gasoline doesn’t: We can grow more. … it’s made right here in the Upper Midwest; it’s an American-made product. I see no reason why, if you have a flex-fuel vehicle, and this fuel is available, why you’re not using it.”

Moffitt4“Even here in Minnesota, there are those who doubt, but that’s their choice. We want to make sure they have a choice. We want to make sure that, for the first time in 100 years, Americans have a choice at the pump … if they want to stick with traditional gasoline, that is their choice. But wouldn’t it be great if we all had a choice to pick something else, something that was cleaner, made in America, and didn’t support countries that don’t like us so much?”

Ethanol can be made from many “feedstocks,” not just corn. Whatever is nearby and abundant is the best source for fuel to be made and sold domestically.

Tell us about what you’re doing to make the switch to alternative fuels: Leave a comment or e-mail us at [email protected]

Yet more evidence that air pollution harms health

Research announced this week at the University of Pittsburgh is only the latest to suggest a link between air pollution and a higher risk of children developing autism.

Motor vehicles – cars, trucks and SUVs – account for about half the air pollution in the United States, the EPA says, with much of the rest coming from industrial sources and coal-fired power plants.

Smog levels are much worse in urban areas than rural ones: According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2014 report, 47 percent of the nation — 147.6 million people — live in places where pollution levels make it dangerous to breathe.

Air toxics, as they’re called, can contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems; heart disease. Experts think that these toxics can have a particularly devastating impact on babies when they’re in the womb, and when the children are very young.

Although much of the science on these effects has only been conducted in the past decade, a 2008 report at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability says: “Recently this research has begun to focus on one specific source of modern-day air pollution – traffic exhaust.”

The study, led by Dr. Beate Ritz, goes on:

“These studies largely focused on potential mortality impacts of airborne particulate matter small enough to penetrate into the human respiratory tract, referred to as PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns in aerodynamic diameter) and more recently have examined PM2.5, even smaller size particles which can penetrate deep into the lung. Most findings from this research indicated infants living in areas with high levels of these types of particulate matter had a greater risk of mortality during the first year of life, particularly from respiratory causes.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a neurological disorder whose symptoms can range from having trouble fitting in with peers to repetitive behaviors to a complete lack of communication and even seizures, now affects an estimated 1 in every 68 U.S. children, a 30 percent increase since 2012. Little is still known about the causes, but many experts believe genetics or environmental exposures, or a combination, are to blame.

The University of Pittsburgh report, led by a health professor of epidemiology named Evelyn Talbott, found that children who were somewhere on the autism spectrum were 1.4 to 2 times as likely to have been exposed to air pollution during their mothers’ pregnancies, compared with children who did not have an ASD. The affected children showed higher levels of styrene, cyanide and chromium.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a UC Davis researcher not affiliated with the Pitt study, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this and other studies like it “do suggest some kind of a link where a family who has children with autism were living usually closer to areas with higher [air toxic] measurements.”

In Utah, where some regions have very poor air quality in wintertime, the incidence of autism is 1 in 47 children, far higher than the national average. Earlier this year, a Harvard study showed that “exposure in the womb to diesel, lead, manganese, mercury, methylene chloride and an overall measure of metals was ‘significantly associated with autism spectrum disorder,’ with the highest association from exposure to diesel exhaust,” according to a story in the Provo Herald Extra.

Given the significant adverse health effects that result from gasoline when it’s combusted inside engines, it makes sense to incorporate cleaner-burning fuels into the nation’s fleet of vehicles. The EPA says as much, saying replacement fuels, including “natural gas, propane, methanol, ethanol, electricity, and biodiesel” can be ” cleaner than gasoline or diesel and can reduce emissions of harmful pollutants.”

(Photo: Los Angeles air, via Shutterstock)