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Hey, I own a flex-fuel vehicle. Now what?

E85editThere are somewhere between 15 million and 17.5 million flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) on the road in the United States. The Big 3 Detroit automakers have delivered on their promise to make half of all their new vehicles (built since the 2012 model year) flex-fuel.

With so many FFVs out there, why don’t more people know that those vehicles run great on ethanol?

FFVs can accommodate any ethanol blend, from the widely used E10 (which contains up to 10 percent ethanol … what most of us fill up on every day) to E15, E30, all the way up to E85 (which actually contains anywhere between 51 percent and 83 percent ethanol). Engines in FFVs can burn any mixture of ethanol and regular gasoline.

And yet surveys consistently show that only a fraction of people who own an FFV know that it can run on fuel other than the garden-variety E10.

How do you know you’re driving an FFV?

  • The most common identifier for vehicle that’s been “branded” an FFV by the manufacturer is a FlexFuel badge somewhere on the vehicle’s exterior, usually the rear.
  • FFVs normally have a sticker inside the fuel door.
  • For good measure, the gas cap is yellow.
  • The vehicle’s owner’s manual will mention it’s an FFV.
  • Often a particular make and model of car will be an FFV, and an identical one won’t be. To tell the difference, visit PropelFuels.com (a distributor of ethanol). They have a handy list of vehicle manufacturers, with a drop-down menu showing which of their models are FFVs. Just to confirm, they list key digits or letters in the VIN that will be a clear indicator.

Most new pickup trucks, and many SUVs, are branded as flex-fuel, so you’re probably used to seeing FFVs on the road. If you’re the proud owner of one, your next step is to find the fuel that will not only make the vehicle’s engine run more smoothly, with fewer knocks and pings, it burns cleaner, emitting fewer toxic substances than regular gas.

Check the Alternative Fuels Data Center website to find stations that sell E85 and other ethanol blends. Many of them are located in the Farm Belt and other Midwestern states, owing to the close proximity to corn-ethanol processing plants. But there are some 1,300 such stations around the country.

For various reasons, automakers build some vehicles that can run on ethanol but aren’t branded as “FlexFuel.” These are called “twins,” because in every meaningful way they’re identical to the FFV version. And there are millions of those on the road, too. All they require is a simple software update that can be done by a mechanic with the know-how.

If only a small percentage of FFV owners out there started using E85, we could make a serious dent in oil consumption in the United States.

Is E85 the Solution to the Ethanol Debate?

Professor Bruce Babcock, of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University, believes he has a simple solution to the corn ethanol mandate problem – encourage people to fill their tank with fuel that is 85 percent ethanol instead of the current 10 percent.

“There may be a few good reason for cutting back on our consumption of corn ethanol,” says Babcock, who holds the Cargill Endowed Chair for Energy Economics. “But the reason the EPA is giving sure isn’t one of them.”

In case you haven’t been following, the Farm Belt is in an uproar over Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate from 14.4 billion gallons to somewhere around 13 billion for 2014. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley blames “special interests” – meaning the oil companies – while Governor Terry Brandstat has talked darkly about a “war on corn.”

But dissatisfaction with the corn ethanol mandate extends well beyond the oil companies and the refineries. In December a coalition of liberals and conservatives – led by California Democrat Diane Feinstein and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn – introduced a bill to do away with the corn mandate altogether. “I strongly support requiring a shift to low-carbon advanced biofuel,” said Feinstein, “but corn ethanol mandate is simply bad policy,” “This misguided policy has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, increased fuel prices and made our food more expensive,” added Coburn.  “The time has come to end it.”

What’s the problem?  Well, the mandate – adopted by Congress in 2007 at the behest of President George Bush, Jr. – has fallen out of sync with the “blend wall” – the theoretical 10 percent mark where ethanol starts harming car engines. The mandate pushed up to 14.2 billion gallons last year while gasoline consumption actually dropped to 135 billion gallons last year from 142 billion gallons in 2007, pushing it way past the 10 percent benchmark.

Faced with this dilemma, refiners were forced to buy “credits” in the form of “renewable identification numbers (RINS),” which give them bookkeeping credit for consuming ethanol. But the pressure on the market pushed the price of RINs from pennies per gallon to $1.40 last August, pushing up the price of gasoline. Hence the rebellion and President Obama’s apparent instructions to the EPA to cool it on the mandate for 2014.

Professor Babcock says this is all a result of the artificial barrier limiting ethanol content to 10 percent. “E85 [a blend that is 85 percent ethanol] is selling all over Iowa at 15 percent less than gasoline,” says Babcock, who is originally from southern California. “That actually makes it a little more expensive than gasoline because you only get 80 percent of the energy.  But last August E85 was selling 25 percent below gasoline and it was a bargain.  The notion that cars can’t tolerate mixes of more than 10 percent ethanol is purely fictional.”

The 10 percent blend wall is based on the premise that putting more ethanol in your tank can harm your engine. Several years ago the auto companies have announced they will not honor warrantees on older cars that use more than 10 percent ethanol. The EPA has approved E15 (15 percent ethanol) for cars built after 2001, even doing elaborate tests to prove it could work, but no one has paid much attention. “The automakers say, `We didn’t build those older cars for E15 and we don’t want them running on E15,’” says Babcock.  “As far as they’re concerned, that’s the end of it.”

Without much fanfare, however, both Ford and GM are now manufacturing close to half their cars for “flex-fuel” – capable of burning any mix of gasoline and ethanol – or even possibly methanol, which has not been tested yet. “There’s a little embossed insignia on the back of the car but it’s easy to miss,” says Babcock.  “There are now 17 million flex-fuel cars on the road, although most people who have them don’t even realize it.”

Adjusting older vehicles to flex-fuel isn’t that difficult, either.  On the oldest models, it involves only replacing a few rubber fuel lines with aluminum, which a good mechanic could do it for less than $200 – if it weren’t illegal.  On newer models it requires only an adjustment to the software.  New flex-fuel cars sell for the exact same price as ordinary gasoline vehicles.  “GM has done a really good job of figuring out flex-fuel technology,” says Babcock.  “All their trucks are now designed for it. Chrysler is coming around as well but the Japanese cars have stayed away from it.  They’re putting all their bets of hybrids, hydrogen and electric vehicles.  They’re not at all interested in biofuels.”

Babcock’s proposal, outlined in a paper released earlier this month, is for the EPA to sanction E85 so it can start selling somewhere else besides Iowa, where ethanol remains popular and corn is aplenty. “It just doesn’t make sense to have all the stations concentrated in the Midwest,” says Babcock. “The real place for these cars should be on the East and West Coasts.”

Who would pay for upgrading all these stations to handle E85?  Babcock’s answer is the oil refineries. “The cost would be about $130,000 per station or 20 cents for each additional gallon they could expect to sell,” he says.  “If the price of RINs becomes too high, the refiners will have to do something.  People call me naïve to think they will spend all that money building new pumps but they’re already done it in several instances. I’m not some wide-eyed academic economist.”

But the refineries do have another option and that is to go to Congress and the President and insist that the mandate be lowered – which is what they’ve just done. And with a rebellion against ethanol brewing in the non-farm states, it isn’t likely the mandate will be reinstated any time soon – at least until the Presidential candidates start trooping to Iowa again.  On the other hand, Babcock’s proposal for approving E85 so that the 17 million flex-fuel cars already on the road can start using it makes perfect sense.

At this point, the “blend wall” may more of a mental barrier than a physical one. Once we break through it, ethanol, methanol and a lot of other things become feasible.

The U.S. and China on methanol: Two roads converge

Nobel-Prize-winning chemist George Olah recently put methanol front and center again with a powerful Wall Street Journal editorial arguing for the conversion of carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants into methanol for use as a gasoline substitute in our car engines. Co-writing with University of Southern California trustee Chris Cox, Olah noted, “Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.”

The authors argued that President Obama’s recently announced policy of mandating carbon sequestration for emissions from coal plants wastes a potentially valuable resource. “At laboratories such as the University of Southern California’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute [founded by Olah], researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and “sequestering” carbon dioxide — the Obama administration’s current plan is to bury it — this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships.”

Olah, of course, has been the principal advocates of methanol since his publication of “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy,” in 2006.

To date, he has been recommending our growing natural gas supplies as the principal feedstock for a methanol economy. But the emissions from the nation’s coal plants offer another possibility.

This is particularly important since indications are that the Environmental Protection’s Agency’s assumption that a regulatory initiative will “force” the development of carbon-sequestering technology may be mistaken. A recent report from Australia’s Global CCS Institute said that, despite widespread anticipation that carbon capture will play a leading role in reducing carbon emission, experimental efforts have actually been declining.

The problem is the laborious task of storing endless amounts of carbon dioxide in huge underground repositories plus the potential dangers of accidental releases, which have aroused public opposition. Olah and Cox write, “By placing the burden of expensive new carbon capture and sequestration technology on the U.S. alone, and potentially requiring steep cuts in domestic energy to conform to carbon caps, the proposal could send the U.S. economy into shock without making a significant dent in global emissions… In place of expensive mandates and wasteful subsidies, what is needed are powerful economic incentives. These incentives should operate not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well.”

All this brings into stark relief the diverging paths that China and the United States have taken in trying to find some alcohol-based fuels to substitute in gas tanks. While Olah has been advocating a transformation to a methanol economy in this country, China is actually much further down the road to developing its own methanol economy. There are now more than a million methanol cars on the road in China and estimates show the fuel substitutes for 5-8% of gasoline consumption — about the same proportion that corn ethanol provides in this country.

In this country, the proposal has been that we derive methanol from our now-abundant supplies of natural gas. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2003 but curtailed its experiment because gas supplies appeared to be too scarce and expensive! Instead, the main emphasis has been on tax incentives and mandates to promote corn ethanol.

China has vast shale gas supplies and could benefit from America’s fracking technology. We could benefit strongly from China’s greater experience in developing methanol cars. The pieces of the puzzle are all there. Perhaps Olah’s proposal may be the catalyst that puts them all together.

Ironically, all this began with a Chinese-American collaboration in 1996. At the time, China had little knowledge or interest in methanol but was persuaded by American scientists to give it a try. Ford provided a methanol engine and China began ramping up its methanol industry and substituting it for gasoline. As a result, China is now the world’s largest producer of methanol, with about one-quarter of the market.

A year ago the Chinese national government was about to mandate a 15% percent methanol standard for gasoline when it ran into opposition from executives in its oil industry. Those leaders have since been deposed, however, and the 15% mandate may go ahead this year. In the meantime, provincial governments  have developed their own standards, with the Shanxi province west of Beijing in the lead.

Ironically, because methanol is only half the price of gasoline, many local gas stations are diluting their gasoline with methanol anyway in order to shave their costs. As a 2011 Energy Policy article by Chi-jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment reported, Private gasoline stations often blend methanol in gasoline without consumers’ knowledge… In fact, its illegal status makes methanol blending more profitable than it would be with legal standards. Illegally blended methanol content is sold at the same price as gasoline. If legalized, standard methanol gasoline would be required to be properly labeled and sold at a lower price than regular gasoline because of its reduced energy content. Such unannounced blending is now common in China.”

So both countries are feeling their way toward a methanol economy. As Olah points out, the problem in the U.S. is that the various advantages given to ethanol have not been extended to methanol.One means of addressing this inequity would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013, which would put methanol, natural gas, and biodiesel on the same footing as ethanol (but without subsidies and without telling consumers which one to choose) for use in flex-fuel cars.

In China, the concern is about coal supplies but this could be alleviated with help from America’s fracking industry or by implementing Olah’s new technology for tapping coal exhausts.

Either way, the pieces are all there. It may be time to start putting them together.

The oil industry and API, at it again. When will they ever learn?

Never a dull moment! The API is at it again. Just a few days ago, it dramatically issued a survey indicating that close to 70% of all consumers were worried that E15 (a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline) would damage their cars. While the survey was done apparently by a reputable firm, it was not attached to the press release, preventing independent experts or advocate group experts from commenting or verifying the questions and the sample. More importantly, the survey was preceded by an expensive oil industry media blitz that illustrated or talked about the so-called evils of ethanol. The survey and media show reflected an attempt by the oil industry to eliminate or weaken the renewable fuel mandates and lessen competition from alternative transitional fuels.

Americans are usually not Pavlovian in demeanor or behavior; we do ask for second and even third opinions from our doctors. But when only one group, in this case, the oil industry, has put out a continuous flashy very expensive multimedia message, the API’s survey results were almost preordained to reflect the published results. Whatever the industry wanted it got! If you tell a misleading partial story to create fear and uncertainty, long enough, it will likely influence many. In this case, the API, if it had a nose, its nose, similar to Pinocchio’s, would be growing and growing and growing.

Let’s look at the facts — never acknowledged by the API in its “Fuel for Thought” campaign.

  1. DOE effectively demolished the API-supported study many months ago indicating that the sampling approach was wrong and the analysis was faulty. DOE’s study used a much larger number of vehicles and was far more rigorous concerning methodology. (Just to let you know, API is an oil industry funded group.)
  2. Many countries around the world have used E15 and higher ethanol blends as a fuel without significant problems. They are seen as a way to reduce environmental problems. They are cheaper than gasoline and they reduce the need, at times, for oil imports. Put another way, they improve quality of life, lower costs to the consumer, and are good for the economy and security.
  3. Although oil company franchise agreements with gas stations have limited the number of stations able to sell E15, several states (mostly in the Midwest) with multi-fuel stations, have demonstrated the merits of E15. Early data appears to discount engine problems.

Hell, Henry Ford’s initial car was designed to run on pure ethanol until the temperance movement supported by Standard Oil banned the use of manufactured alcohol. I know Standard Oil was very concerned that Americans would drink ethanol at their favorite bars or in front of their favorite fire place with their favorite significant other. Praise be to Standard Oil for salvation!

The law (RFS) requires a 10% ethanol blend with gasoline. More than a year ago, EPA OK’d the sale of E15 (for most cars particularly those produced after 2001). In June, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal by the oil industry of EPA’s standards.

API’s media campaign raises the food versus fuel fight canard because ethanol is produced mostly from corn as the feedstock. But the narratives neglect to raise the fact that the evidence concerning the negative impact on food is disputed by reputable analysts who indicate that, for the most part, the corn used for ethanol production is not your friendly grocery counter corn. Put another way, most of the corn to ethanol conversion comes from corn not able to be used for food. Yes, there still maybe some impacts on corn production and prices because of the growers reallocation of land, in light of the differential between corn and ethanol prices, to ethanol. However, many studies suggest that if a negative food impact exists, it is relatively minor. It is a worthy debate.

It appears, that API, conveniently, forgets to mention that ethanol can be produced efficiently and effectively from natural gas and that cellulosic based ethanol is now being manufactured or will soon be manufactured in large volumes by several companies. Further, Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it will start selling fuel made from methane in landfills and other waste sources in over 40 stations in California. Success of these initiatives, likely, will mean the end of the fuel versus food issue. If success is combined with the inexpensive conversion of existing cars to flex fuel cars permitting them to use alternative fuels, America will be blessed with a much cleaner, environmentally safe, and cheaper alternatives to gasoline- assuming the oil industry doesn’t block their sale at fuel stations.

Clearly, the oil industry does not want competition at the pump from ethanol…whether corn, cellulosic, garbage or natural gas. The American public should be wary of misleading guerilla marketing through industry funded surveys or not so benign expensive media blasts by captive organizations like API. Hopefully, the American consumer will not be confused for long. Paraphrasing a song by Peter, Paul and Mary about war and peace and a statement by President Lincoln, when will the oil companies ever learn?, and, if they don’t learn, when will they recognize “they can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but they cannot fool all the people all the time.”