Cellulosic ethanol has benefits in the age of drought

The prolonged California drought, made worse by climate change, should get farmers and regulators thinking more about the benefits of cellulosic ethanol. Plants whose sugars are fermented from cellulose, as opposed to starchy plants used for food like corn and sugar cane, often don’t need nearly as much water, tending or high-quality soil.

Currently, the vast majority of the 14 million gallons of ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn — not “corn on the cob,” the sweet corn consumed by humans, but field corn normally given to livestock. Because of the vast scale of corn production, growers are able to tinker and experiment, and their advances in technology and growing techniques have brought higher crop yields than ever: In 2014 farmers grew an average of 171 barrels per acre, about 6 barrels per acre more than the record yield of 2009.

That translated to yields of ethanol: According to the Renewable Fuels Association, corn used for fuel yielded 2.82 gallons per bushel, or 478.8 gallons per acre.

Other starchy, food-based fuel crops are not far behind: Sugar beets actually produce more than twice the ethanol yields as corn (about 1,200 gallons per acre), and many U.S. farmers are increasing production. Grain sorghum is another good sugar/starchy ethanol “feedstock,” yielding potentially 2.27 gallons per bushel.

Other examples of cellulosic ethanol feedstocks would be switchgrass; corn stover; miscanthus giganteus; and wood waste left over from forestry operations. These sources not only are inedible for humans, they don’t require that much work to grow: In the case of corn stover, it’s the leftovers from corn harvesting.

For more information, check out our cool new shareable infographic on feedstocks for ethanol:


According to a study released in March by the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois, miscanthus — a reedy plant that can grow 12 feet tall or more — was the “clear winner” in a side-by-side comparison between switchgrass and corn stover, when it comes to yields and costs of production.

“One of the reasons for interest in these second-generation cellulosic feedstocks is that if they can be grown on low-quality soil, they wouldn’t compete for land with food crops, such as corn. This study shows that although miscanthus yield was slightly lower on marginal, low-quality land, a farmer would have an economic incentive to grow miscanthus on the lower quality land first rather than diverting their most productive cropland from growing corn,” said University of Illinois agricultural economist Madhu Khanna, a co-author of the study.

If the California drought persists for years, and the situation is repeated around the world, it makes sense to displace dirty oil with cleaner-burning alcohol fuels, especially ones that thrive in arid conditions.

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Not just corn: 10 homegrown feedstocks for ethanol

The debate over ethanol often is dominated by corn, our most widely used natural resource for making the fuel.

But there are many different “feedstocks” that can be used to produce the alcohol fuel. Fuel Freedom Foundation has created a new infographic detailing some of those. Of course, corn is in there, but so is natural gas and a variety of plants that don’t just look pretty, they’re useful as a fuel to power our cars, trucks and SUVs.

Companies also are ramping up production of “cellulosic” ethanol. That form of ethanol isn’t fermented from corn starch but from the sugars extracted from a wide variety of plants. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from wood waste, corn stover (the leftovers from corn after it’s harvested) and switchgrass, among other inedible plants.

The infographic is below. Click on the image for a wider view:


Share it, pass it around, use it to debate your skeptical friends!

As David Blume, author of “Alcohol Can Be a Gas!”, outlined in our 2014 documentary PUMP, ethanol can be made from the agave plant, cat tails, sweet sorghum and other plants that don’t require as much effort (and diesel-powered machinery) to grow.

Prickly pear, for instance, “grows all over the world, in huge quantities, especially in places where it’s dry,” Blume said. “We can grow this in poor countries that don’t have a viable agriculture, in arid areas.

“What is the best alcohol crop? It’s the one that’s best suited to your soil and climate where you are.”

Watch that clip from the movie:

Alt-fuel stations growing, without subsidies or regulations

Without much fanfare, the number of fueling stations offering an alternative to gasoline has passed the 20,000 mark, according to the federal government’s Clean Cities program. The number of gasoline fueling stations, according to the American Petroleum Institute, is 153,000.

The figure shows that alternative infrastructure is gaining ground even as the number of alternative vehicles sold in the U.S. has slowed of late, an obvious result of falling oil prices. On the other hand, the sale of alternative vehicles has actually accelerated in Europe. China is also giving indications of a big push that will attempt to make it the leading market of alternative vehicles in the world.

Clean Cities is a 1993 initiative of the Department of Energy that has picked up steam in recent years. Its efforts to reduce gasoline consumption include 1) replacing petroleum with alternative and renewable fuels; 2) reducing petroleum consumption through smarter driving practices and fuel economy improvements; and 3) eliminating petroleum use through idle reduction and other fuel-saving technologies and practices. The goal is to reduce gasoline consumption by 2.5 billion gallons every year through 2020. The program claims to have already reduced consumption by 6 billion gallons since its inaugural.

In order to carry out its mission, Clean Cities has formed coalitions with nearly 100 major cities covering 82 percent of the population of the United States. Coalitions are comprised of local businesses, fuel providers, vehicle fleets, state and local government agencies, and community organizations. These stakeholders come together to share information and resources, educate the public, help craft public policy, and collaborate on projects that reduce petroleum use. There are networking opportunities with fleets and industry partners, technical training workshops and webinars, plus information on alternative fuels, advanced vehicles, idle reduction, and other technologies that reduce petroleum use. There are also funding opportunities from the Department of Energy.

Probably Clean Cities’ biggest initiative, however, has been a map of alternative fueling stations across the country. The Station Locator has now grown to a list of 20,000. These include: 12,334 electric recharging stations, 3292 propane stations, 2,956 gas stations that offer E85 (up to 85 percent ethanol), 1,549 compressed natural gas (CNG) outlets, 729 biodiesel pumps, 115 liquid natural gas (LNG) outlets and 41 hydrogen stations.

Dennis Smith, director of the Clean Cities program, says that both plug-in electrics and propane vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. “Plug-in electric vehicle sales for consumers have passed more than 300,000 since they were introduced in 2010, and an increasing number of fleets are using propane,” he told The growth of these stations is most likely in response to a need from these drivers. In addition, both propane and EV stations are less expensive to purchase and install than those for many other fuels.” Smith also said that the number of CNG and LNG stations understates their impact, since they tend to service heavy-duty trucks along interstate highway routes.

While the sale of alternative vehicles may have leveled off of late in the United States, they are burgeoning in Europe, despite the drop in world oil prices. Alternative fuel vehicle registrations rose 17.4 percent across Europe in the second quarter of 2015, and 24.6 percent over the first half of the year. There are now nearly 300,000 registered vehicles, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. The United Kingdom led the pack in major markets with an increase of 62.4 percent registrations in the second quarter. Norway led the entire continent, however, with 77 percent of all 11,614 newly registered vehicles being electrically powered. The country has offered huge incentives to alternative fuel owners as its oil production from the North Sea begins to taper off.

Meanwhile, in China, the Beijing city government is considering investing tens of billions in a plan to make the Middle Kingdom the world’s largest manufacturer of alternative vehicles. China now has 18,000 EVs on the road, 10,133 public passenger vehicles and 8,360 owned by individuals and organizations.

To cut down on traffic, Beijing has a unique system in which cars with certain license plate numbers are forbidden from being within the city’s fifth-ring road from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Monday through Friday. And it’s not automatic that a new car can receive a license plate. But electric vehicles are much easier to register and will be allowed to drive within the city at any hour, giving them a distinct advantage. BAIC, the principal maker of EVs, has become China’s largest automobile manufacturer, controlling 22.5 percent of the market.

So the initiative to cut down on imported oil is universal. In Europe, it comes from heavy-handed government subsidies and regulations. In China, it comes from government favoritism and outright prohibition. In the U.S., however, volunteer organizations, led by government initiative, seem to be achieving similar results.

Sacramento flex-fuel drivers, you can’t pass up this deal

We did some quick math here at Fuel Freedom Foundation, and we can say, without hesitation, that there are thousands of flex-fuel vehicles on the road in Sacramento and its environs.

Attention soccer moms in your GMC Yukons, and dads in your Chevy Silverados and Ford F-150s! This is a deal you can’t afford to miss.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, Aug. 12, five gas stations in the Sacramento area will sell E85 ethanol fuel for 85 cents a gallon, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. See what they did there? E85 all over the place!

Here are the five participating stations:

  • Shell: 5103 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael, CA 95608
  • Shell: 730 29th Street, Sacramento, CA 95816
  • Shell: 3721 Truxel Road, Sacramento, CA 95834
  • Shell: 800 Ikea Court, West Sacramento, CA 95691
  • Oliver Gas: 1009 Oliver Road, Fairfield, CA 94534

Our friends at San Diego-based Pearson Fuels are sponsoring the promo. The five stations are the newest outlets for E85 in a network that spans California. (We wrote about Pearson and its business model a couple months back.) Check out Pearson’s release for more information.

There are some 1 million flex-fuel vehicles in California, built to run on E85, a cheaper, cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline that also emits fewer toxic pollutants that foul the air and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions that warm the planet. Since there are about 2.1 million people living in the Sacramento metro area, 5.4 percent of the state’s population, we can extrapolate that there are roughly 54,000 FFVs in the area.

So get thee to the pump, and tell your FFV-driving friends!

Even after Wednesday, when E85 resets to its usual price, consumers will still see a benefit. It’s usually 25 to 30 percent cheaper than regular 87 octane.

Even if you don’t own an FFV, you can enter our contest to raise awareness about the benefits of E85. You could win a $50 Amazon gift card!

Support fuel choice for a chance to win a $50 gift card

Pearson Fuels is a big believer in the power of drivers like you choosing better alternatives, and they’re celebrating new contracts with five stations in the Sacramento area by offering E85 for 85 cents per gallon on Wednesday August 12 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you have a flex-fuel vehicle, you can save big by filling up at one of the Pearson-affiliated stations listed below.

Even if you don’t have an FFV, you can still enter our contest to help raise awareness about the need for more alternative fuel stations.

It’s easy. While you’re at the station, snap a photo of yourself at the pump and post it on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook along with the hashtag #flexfuel4all for a chance to win a $50 gift card from Amazon.


The participating stations are:

  • Shell: 5103 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael, CA 95608
  • Shell: 730 29th Street, Sacramento, CA 95816
  • Shell: 3721 Truxel Road, Sacramento, CA 95834
  • Shell: 800 Ikea Court, West Sacramento, CA 95691
  • Oliver Gas: 1009 Oliver Road, Fairfield, CA 94534

Full contest rules here.

Good luck!

Facts, and 93-octane ethanol, win over riders at Sturgis

Robert White of the Renewable Fuels Association is in his seventh year of promoting ethanol in what can be a hostile environment: the legendary Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

But as he wins over more converts — even the burly Harley-Davidson riders — his job gets easier.

“I did have one guy yell at me yesterday morning as I was driving around,” said White (pictured above), a longtime Harley rider himself. The gentleman hurled a few expletives his way. “He said ‘That stuff is terrible, it doesn’t work.’ I said, ‘Well that’s not what Harley says.’ He said, ‘Well they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ I said ‘Yeah, the people that just build your bike, what would they know?’ ”

White, a VP for the Washington, D.C.-based RFA, has met a lot of skeptics during the 75th annual rally, which runs through Sunday. In partnership with the famous Buffalo Chip campground (site of so many cool concerts this week, including John Fogerty on Wednesday night), RFA has been giving away free motorcycle tankfuls of a special blend of E10. But instead of merely 87, 89 or 91 octane like you get at the gas station, this E10 is 93 octane, made by infusing ethanol into existing pure gasoline.

“That’s higher than anything sold in town, and the bikers love that extra octane, so they take it,” White said.

Sturgis2015_banners3Convincing bikers that ethanol won’t harm their engines is an point of emphasis for RFA, because there are 22 million motorcycles in the United States, and groups that represent some of them have complained loudly about the fuel. Even though ethanol blends above E10 aren’t legally approved for motorcycles anyway, the American Motorcycle Association has railed against the increasing adoption of E15 for vehicles. Much of the group’s argument consists of fear that bikers will accidentally put E15 or higher concentrations into their tanks; the jury is still out on what effects, if any, higher ethanol blends can have on fuel lines and engine components in older cars, trucks and SUVs that aren’t flex-fuel vehicles.

White thinks something else is at work with AMA’s obsession.

“I think it’s just simply a membership campaign,” he said. “You can only sell so many memberships trying to protest helmet laws. That’s run its course in most locations. So you have another reason to maybe sign on a few members. There are 22 million motorcycles in the United States, and AMA has a whopping 250,000 members. So they may claim to be the biggest, the baddest and the voice of the motorcycle industry, but it’s almost laughable.”

For this year’s free E10 giveaway (which continues through Thursday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Mountain time), White got the idea to put up actual language from motorcycle warranties on poster boards and display them. The Harley excerpt reads: “Fuels with an ethanol content of up to 10 percent may be used in your motorcycle without affecting vehicle performance.”

“A guy walks up and says, ‘I’ve heard I shouldn’t use this. How can you convince me to do something different than what I was told to do? I just turned him around and I pointed him, he had a Harley-Davidson, and he read the Harley statement. I said, ‘That’s the only people you should be listening to. They’re the ones that built it, they’re the ones that designed it, and they’re the ones that honor your warranty. No one else should have any part in that.”

Rob “Woody” Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip, is convinced. Watch this video with him telling White his 11-year-old Harley has never had anything but ethanol.

White said bikers he’s talked to are concerned mostly with how a fuel will affect their engines. But they’re open to hearing about the other benefits of higher ethanol blends, like the fact that it’s American-made and will reduce the amount of oil the U.S. has to import.

“It all starts and stops with the ‘Is it OK for my bike?’ If you get past that, they really don’t have any problems, and the extra benefits are just bonus for them. … a lot of the bikers are also veterans, or they have some connection or really love the troops. Well, here’s a fuel we don’t have to fight for, we don’t have to protect supply lines. That resonates pretty good too.”

(Photos from RFA/ZimmComm New Media)


What caused EV sales to go off a cliff in July?

So, is everybody out there waiting for the spiffy new editions of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt? If EV-makers and proponents are waiting for those holdouts to show up, it could be a very long few months.

The website Inside EVs, which keeps track of monthly sales for all-electrics and plug-in hybrids in the U.S. and globally, has published its July numbers, and they’re abysmal: Only 7,102 were sold during the month, compared with 11,242 in July 2014. There are still six models for which numbers are not available — Ford’s Fusion Energi, C-Max Energi and Focus Electric; Porsche Cayenne S-E and Panamera S-E; and the Kia Soul EV — but even if  those cars come in at the same level as this June, the overall sales tally will still be well under last year’s pace.

For the first six months of 2015, a total of 61,449 EVs have been sold domestically, compared with 123,049 during the same period last year. Meantime, the rest of the world continues to outsell the U.S., thanks in part to generous subsidies in many European countries.

This marks the third straight month that U.S. EV sales have lagged the same month in 2014, and there’s a running debate about why. The dominant argument is that consumers are waiting to push their hard-earned money toward the next-generation Leaf and Volt, both of which are due out in 2017.

According to Inside EVs, the 2016 model year of the Leaf will have a 30 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery, compared with the 24 kWh currently out there, giving the 2016 version an estimated range of 105-110 miles, up from the current 84. The range for the redesigned (and much more stylish) 2017 Leaf should be even better, and Nissan is testing battery technology it hopes will allow a future version of the Leaf to get 250 miles on a full charge.

Chevy Volt_20166The current iteration of the Volt can travel only 38 miles without recharging, but the 2016 model of the hybrid will be able to go 53 miles before the gasoline-engine kicks in, The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday. On a full charge and full tank of gas, the range is 420 miles. Details about the redesigned 2017 Volt are sketchy.

The Times notes that the all-electric Tesla Model S has a range of 265 miles, but it costs $100,000. The cheaper EVs are, the generally shorter their battery ranges are. The 2016 Volt’s MSRP is $33,170 (without incentives), and the last iteration of the Leaf, the 2014, starts at $28,980.

Tesla’s upcoming Model 3, which is supposed to retail at $35,000 and is slated to be released in early 2016, is expected to have a battery range of about 200 miles. Tesla expects big things from its first “mainstream” EV. The Model S already is the hottest-selling EV in the nation so far this year, with 13,200 units sold, although only 1,600 were sold in July, compared with 2,800 in June and 2,400 in May.

The other splashy new release is the $30,000 Chevy Bolt, an all-electric that’s supposed to go on sale in 2017 and also has a range of about 200 miles.

So there’s a bounty of high-tech, much-improved EVs and hybrids hitting the market in the next year or so. But if sales remain flat even then, the depressive effect of low gasoline prices could emerge as the true motivator.

With the 2014 gas-price spike long in the distance (a gallon of regular was $2.64 Tuesday, compared with $3.50 a year ago), there’s little incentive for consumers to buy or lease a new electric car now, especially if they’re not sure they’ll have a battery strong enough to get them to work and back.

Sales of conventional vehicles are going in the opposite direction as EVs: The big automakers are on track for their first year of 17 million units sold since before the Great Recession. SUVs, crossovers and pickups led a strong sales month in July. “That segment of vehicles continues to be smoking hot,” Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of sales and marketing, told the Detroit Free Press.

For perspective, more Chevy Silverados were sold in July (56,380) than the eight top-selling EVs combined that were sold from January through July (55,365).

If you’re shopping for a new or used car and want the benefits of cleaner-burning, cheaper, American-made fuels, consider buying a flex-fuel vehicle that can use E85. Check out to see which models are FFVs.

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What do Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren have to say about marriage and oil strategy?

Landers_BurenAnn Landers and Abigail Van Buren, well-known advisors and columnists for people with relationship issues, were, at one point in time, distant cousins of mine. So I was willingly exposed to daily columns about the lovelorn, love-confused and folks in need of love. Ms. Landers and Ms. Van Buren were actually sisters. They, however, didn’t like each other much. I bet you didn’t know that! Their words were generally wise; their advice was mostly cautious; and, at the time, their words were from a puritan bent. Sometimes they were funny, and rarely did they cater to the prurient interest. They were G-rated!

Last night, I caught up on reading my favorite newspapers and journals and, out of the blue, my mind wandered to my now-deceased former cousins – Ms. Landers and Ms. Van Buren. I bet either one could have addressed questions from depressed oil executives due to a lack of love for the industry from the general public. I think the last poll concerning reputations placed oil industry executives close to land speculators, exotic animal poachers, football deflaters and wife- or husband-beaters. The oil company executives appear to shoulder much of the blame for past high gasoline prices and the possible return of high prices, as well as increased GHG emissions and pollution. While other variables are involved, increased numbers of the public appear to hold oil executives responsible for America’s iterative need to risk boots on the ground or in the air in the Middle East to protect our access, or our allies’ access, to oil. Some executives appear to have taken the public’s negative perceptions to heart. My psychiatrist friends believe they carry much hidden guilt.

I have created a fictional letter from an oil executive going through therapy for depression because of his job and the possible related breakup of his marriage, and imagined the response from both Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. I wanted to help the poor executives. On reading my draft, the words seemed so real and so sad. The guy seemed to have manic-depressive characteristics. His letter and a response from one of the sisters follows:


I have a terrible problem. It’s affecting my marriage. I love my wife, even though sometimes I don’t understand her.

I should tell you that when I left college with a Wharton MBA, I wanted to change the world for the better. I thought I could do good and also make some money. Isn’t that what’s meant when political leaders say that America is an exceptional place? Capitalism with a heart and soul!
I honestly disagree with the economist Milton Friedman (or was it Alfred P. Sloan?) when one or the other said something like “the business of business is business.”

I am an executive at Exxon. I usually feel good every morning when I go to work. I believe that Exxon, through its oil and gas operations, has helped to power the United States. It’s provided mobility to residents, whether rich or poor. It generated jobs and income all over the world. What’s good for Exxon is good for the U.S.! Isn’t it? (Bring back “Engine” Charlie Wilson … do you remember the ex-secretary of defense?)

But my wife disagrees with me about Exxon. She has her Ph.D. from Harvard (you know, that school in Cambridge). She is a believer in alternative fuels, like ethanol. She thinks – or, I forgot, feels – that oil and gasoline are the scourge of the nation: bad for the environment, America’s security, personal health and well-being and the economy, and bad for what, I thought, was once a beautiful and romantic marriage.

Our present differences have resulted in large bills for marriage counselors. At our last session, which cost $350 for the hour, she told the counselor that she was happy that the oil company revenues have gone way down because of depressed demand, a surplus of global oil supplies, increased costs for drilling, the rise in value of the dollar and OPEC’s effort to sustain both production and relatively low oil prices. She seemed overjoyed, almost manic, that companies have reduced exploration for oil. The counselor’s response was, “Well you must feel good! Ending exploration will help save pristine sensitive areas like the Arctic Circle.” She seemed to have gone over a professional line. The counselor, to me, reflected a new breed. My wife and I were paying for part therapist, part advocate. She clearly was a Democrat. I was worried.

During our session, my wife seemed mean from time to time. At one point, in front of the therapist, she indicated that she was pleased that jobs are being lost in the oil sector. When I interrupted her to meekly note that my own high-paying job could be on the line if the oil market continues to be a downer, she gasped, full-throated, and said, “I told you so. It’s a lousy industry, a polluting industry and an industry that contributes to global warming. You should have left the company a long time ago.” After I started to cry (men do cry), she added, “I wouldn’t let our daughter [we don’t even have a daughter] go out with an oil executive and, if she married one, I would disown her.”

Our counselor was no help. All she could say were things like, “look at each other,” “think of good memories,” “talk to each other from your heart, particularly before you go to bed.” Hell, I just got a heart transplant, and it knows nothing. I also sleep on the couch since my wife got on the E85 kick! Please help me. We have a loveless, sexless, talk-less marriage. We are on the brink. What can I do? – DESPERATE OIL EXECUTIVE


My sister and I don’t want to say there is no hope for your marriage. We don’t often agree on anything, and we have relationship issues ourselves. Generally, when we are alone, however, both of our cups are half or more than half full. For you and your wife to survive as a couple, I think (and on this one, I am sure my sister would agree,) that you need to work a lot harder at understanding one another. It seems like you have not heard how strongly your wife feels about ending U.S. dependence on oil and gasoline. Give her respect! Her opinion is not yet a majority one, and it is courageous. She is a real thought leader. Be proud of her! To her, the need for alternative fuels has become both ideology and compelling wisdom. It’s part of her persona.

It appears that your wife has not heard about your passion for doing good while you work hard to bring home a large payroll stub every month. Maybe you have neglected your youthful passion and how important it was to you after college. Maybe the lack of passion in your love life relates to your own forgotten passion as a human being and professional. I can’t tell from here, but it’s worthy of examination.

Meanwhile, to help save your marriage, if you’re a believer, pray; if you are an agnostic, have faith; and if you are an atheist, believe in yourself or yourselves. Maybe you could do good and please your wife by helping convince your oil company to favor opening up its franchises to competition from alternative fuels and provide charging and blending pumps at each station. Talk to her! If she will let you, hold her tight (or at least hold hands), and while doing so tell her you both can find common ground. Buy her an electric-powered Prius or Tesla; maybe even an E85 high-octane EPA-approved Chevrolet. Give her the keys and say, “I love you”! Try to begin a new beginning. Maybe it will get you off the couch and help the nation move toward alternative fuels. I wish you and your wife good luck. Indeed, my friend Dinah Shore would want you both to “see the USA” in your new environmentally friendly, alternative-fuel Chevrolet. Many miles of happy driving, and may your renewed marriage be full of love and affection.