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Help us drop some more knowledge on America

Fuel Freedom Foundation has a lot of irons in the fire. Sure, we spread the word about the benefits of fuel choice on our witty, informative social-media channels, our awesome 2014 movie PUMP (Jason Bateman! OMG!!), and our exhaustively comprehensive but hugely entertaining website.

Brackett-Malibu_blog2

The 2009 Chevy Malibu, being tested at our Colorado lab.

But we’ve also been busy testing a car in Colorado in an effort to prove to the EPA that it’s possible to convert a gasoline-only car to run on E85 ethanol blend, with only an update to the vehicle’s on-board computer.

We also underwrite research at major universities and think tanks on a variety of issues related to our overall goal of creating fuel choice at the pump. For instance, Prof. James D. Hamilton at the University of California at San Diego wrote a paper showing that 10 of the last U.S. recessions since World War II were preceded by a spike in oil prices. He added that “there is a significant likelihood of repeating that experience within the next 5 years.” Um, that paper was written in 2012, y’all.

Showing that car conversions are feasible is a crucial goal, because millions of American cars might be eligible. There are about 17 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road, capable of running on any mixture of ethanol and gasoline. Millions of other FFV “twins” are around, built at the factory to run on E85 but just needing the software to be optimized to do so. And as Miles Light, an economist at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, wrote in a paper:

46.9 million conventional fuel vehicles can potentially be converted for $150–$250 each. In all, this represents 77.75 million light duty vehicles, or 31.8% of the national light duty fleet, that would potentially purchase natural gas liquid fuel, if prices were attractive.

Ethanol isn’t the only alcohol fuel that could help us reduce our dependence on oil. A forthcoming study by the MIT Energy Initiative says methanol can improve engine efficiency. An early version of the study states:

Higher engine performance (mostly described in terms of efficiency in this report) can be achieved by intrinsic properties of the fuels, as described above, with no changes to the operation of the vehicle. Or it can be obtained by using different software in the computer, adjusting the parameters (such as spark timing and valve timing), which requires re-calibration of the engine.

Fuel Freedom can’t make fuel choice happen without you. Sign up on our Take Action page to join the fight and receive updates on our progress. And if you’re so inclined, you can donate to our cause so we can keep going with our research and car-testing initiatives.

Americans deserve to drive for less!

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Take me shopping for eggs, copper and corn starch

Good news for a world often filled with bad news has recently been generated by two major U.S. universities, both in regards to the efficacy of alternative fuels. Maybe the announcements will lend confidence that America can find a way to balance economic growth with environmental concerns. Increasing success over time will mean that (paraphrasing in part, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy) the nation will not have to accept “what is” with respect to the dominance of gasoline as a fuel, but can consider “what could be” concerning the use of alternative, cleaner, safer, environmental-better and cheaper fuels.

Stanford University professors, in a paper co-authored by Dr. Matthew Kanan, assistant professor of chemistry, announced that they have developed a copper catalyst that can efficiently convert carbon monoxide and water into ethanol. Quoting from a recent MIT Technology Review (April 2014), “while the work is still experimental, it’s significant because the group was able to synthesize ethanol and other desired products with so little energy input.” The Stanford researchers envision a “two-step process in which carbon dioxide is first converted into carbon monoxide using either existing processes or more energy-efficient ones that are currently under development. Then, the carbon monoxide would be converted to ethanol or other carbon-based compounds electrochemically. The key to the new catalyst is preparing the copper in a novel way that changes its molecular structure.”

How long will it take to get from idea to market? If the copper-based process survives further lab tests and evaluations, and if it is then converted into a prototype that is able to produce ethanol fuel, a big push to convert the prototype to real-world status from both the private sector and government would be warranted.

Stanford’s “breakthrough” — if the process becomes marketable and can generate lower-priced, environmentally-safe ethanol that is capable of fueling flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and older, converted FFVs — will be significant, even perhaps a disruptive technology. With the proper support, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, increased use of the copper catalyst will minimize and maybe even end the food vs. fuel and land-use allocation fights, as well as help resolve GHG emissions and other pollutant issues that have sometimes frustrated the use of corn-based ethanol and muted receptivity to natural-gas-based ethanol. Technological improvements concerning production reflected in recent life-cycle analysis of corn-based ethanol and reasonable assumptions concerning the cost and environmental benefits of natural-gas-based ethanol, combined with the success of Stanford’s copper catalyst approach, could offer owners of FFVs (both converted and new vehicles) a wider variety of alternatives to secure ethanol that, clearly, will be cheaper, safer and better for the environment.

Stanford’s good news was matched by Cornell’s. Dr. Yingchao You and Dr. Hao Chen announced that they had discovered that a component of corn starch and the yolk shell structure of eggs improve the durability and performance of lithium batteries. In this context, they note that lithium-sulfur batteries are a very solid alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Stabilization problems related to its capacity can be resolved by using amylopectin, a polysaccharide (mainly good old corn starch).

Enveloping the battery’s lithium sulfur cathodes, with an encasing resembling the shell of an egg yolk (sulfur coated with an inexpensive polymer) also apparently improves the battery’s durability and performance.

Cornell has initiated a startup company to take the new and improved starch, egg-yolk shell battery to market. Maybe sometime soon, moderate and middle-income owners of electric cars that are less expensive than what is now available will be able to reduce their fear of driving long distances and feel confident about the life and efficiency of the batteries in their vehicles.

I avoided chemistry, physics and engineering in college. I knew I was not destined to become neither city planner nor designer at MIT when my first student-planned bridge went under water instead of over it. While my efforts were applauded by the Malthusians among my colleagues, they were not regarded highly by professors. Since graduation, unless supported by respected colleagues with a background in relevant sciences and engineering, I have been hesitant to suggest approval of science-driven energy innovations. I am a policy and program person. However, after review and discussions with trusted experts, I believe the Stanford and Cornell initiatives have a good chance to see the light of day, or, more appropriate, see the light in the market place. If one or both do, we will all be better off and the number of feasible alternative transportation fuels available to the consumer will grow. Hooray for copper, starch and eggs.

Altruism Aside, Is Ethanol A Competitive Alternative Fuel?

I was a bit under the weather this past weekend. I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some reading; something assumedly simple- the relatively recent literature concerning the ability of ethanol, particularly E85, to compete with gasoline and the capacity of consumers to make rational decisions in their choice of alternative fuels.

By Sunday night, apart from watching the Denver Broncos happily beat New England on TV, and the amusing dialogue and extensive media time generated by Seattle’s cornerback, Richard Sherman, concerning his athletic and his academic prowess; I spent about 10 hours reviewing several well cited pieces concerning the price relationship between ethanol and gasoline. I also read the intense, often seemingly less than civil debate in papers authored by two professors at Iowa State (Dermot Hayes and Xiadong Du)  and two at MIT (Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith) concerning methodology associated with defining the relationship between ethanol and gasoline prices. (The Iowa and MIT faculty vigorously attacked each other, sometimes personally, over mistaken attribution of research funding sources. More important, the Iowa folks generally argued that their data suggested a link between ethanol production and the price of gasoline. They indicated that, as ethanol production increased the price of gasoline decreased relative to the price of crude oil.

The MIT folks poo poo’d their distant colleagues’ findings. They indicated that their empirically based models illustrate only a statistically insignificant set of relationships concerning ethanol, gasoline and crude oil prices. They also opined that the Iowa writers misapplied the crack ratio –the relationship of gasoline to crude oil prices- and did not use or mistakenly used the crack spread ratio (the weighted average of the gasoline and distillate products produced by a barrel of crude oil minus the cost of crude). Put in another way, what the Iowa writers recorded was correlation not causation. (I know the etymology but we need to help the economists among us find a better set of terms than crack spread and crack ratio. For a minute, I thought that the texts described a line up at a police station or FBI statistics about drug use.)

What can we learn from recent literature about the effect of ethanol production and gasoline prices at the pump?

1. Most independent experts, not affiliated with advocacy groups, seem willing to support as fact that increased ethanol use, at times, will lower the price of gasoline or slow the increase in the price of gasoline. But the caveat is “somewhat.” They disagree on how much on either side of zero. The recent conventional wisdom, stimulated by the Iowa study that ethanol has and likely will reduce the wholesale price by $.89 cents to $1.09 per gallon seems wrong. It appears to reflect an overstatement based on analyses and models that do not accommodate the many complex variables affecting price and costs (e.g. costs of refining, rapid changes in the costs of corn, the costs of distribution, the lack of infrastructure, the unanticipated increases or decreases in costs of crude oil based on investor speculation, escalation or de-escalation of tension in Middle East, uncertain federal policy, etc.). If I were a betting person, I would place my bet on Knittel and Smith’s conclusions that, over time, the price impact of ethanol at the pump on gasoline prices is likely marginal at best.

2. However, to be fair, some scholars and practitioners in the energy business believe that if gasoline is blended with a larger proportion of ethanol (e.g. E85), the price of a gallon of fuel could well drop, given the idiosyncrasies of the present market.  If this occurs and the reduction appears to consumers as beneficial, a number of observers think that owners of flex fuel vehicles (new or converted) could be enticed to switch to E85. What they generally don’t know, is the cross over point where alternative fuels like E85 become a viable option to drivers because the prices seem to be a good deal. A smart and astute participant in a recent forum on alternative fuels indicated that “people drive to COSTCO or Wal-Mart to save 5-8 cents a gallon on gasoline. Why wouldn’t they switch to E85 blends, if they reflected similar or indeed larger savings and fuel stations were accessible?”

Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t! If the price is low enough, many drivers will likely engage in personal opportunity costing. But what is low enough? Getting gas at Wal-Mart and Costco is different from getting E85. Gas is a familiar product to most drivers. Consumers of E85 will have to surmount doubts over product safety, stimulated, I believe erroneously, by groups such as the AAA. Further, because E85 will get fewer miles per gallon, drivers will probably think about perceived price savings in the context of miles per gallon and extra trips to the fuel station (If they forget to do the personal math, they will be reminded to do so by oil companies).

3. Uncertainty exists concerning how much consumers will pay for ethanol based on personal preferences or commitments to societal well-being, what I call the altruism thing.

As one author put it, “ …the demand for ethanol (E85) as a substitute (E10) is sensitive to relative fuel prices: a  $.10 per gallon increase in ethanol’s price relative to gasoline leads to a 12-16% decrease in quantity of ethanol demanded. Price responses are considerably smaller, however, than they would be if households had identical willingness to pay for ethanol as a gasoline substitute and… results imply that some households are willing to pay a premium for ethanol.”

Why? Maybe to improve the environment, provide support for farmers, to express concern over national security, etc. A recent report from Brazil indicates that some Brazilians are willing to pay more for alternative fuels because of what seem to be altruistic reasons. Before we say hallelujah, I should note that we don’t really know the numbers seeking salvation. They are not your average household but rather as one economist notes they are likely “marginal” households in terms of numbers. Further, several respected survey firms in the U.S. doubt that goals related to the larger community or nation, even if consumers articulate them in their living rooms, will overcome large differences between the price of E85 and gasoline, if they occur.

Similarly, altruism or civic values will not overcome fear of engine damage or the need for relatively long trips to fuel stations to secure alternative fuels. The pews, at least until we know more, probably will remain filled with a proportionately large share of guilty drivers on Saturday or Sunday.

The Fuel Freedom Foundation is involved in three state pilot projects aimed at converting existing cars to flex fuel cars; cars that will permit their owners to use natural gas based fuel such as ethanol and, when it is legal, methanol. Hopefully the pilot projects, combined with strategic federal, state, foundation and private sector supported research, will expand knowledge concerning consumer decisions and variables such as the importance of price differentials, altruism, distance, access, etc.

A study supported by Fuel Freedom Foundation recently completed by the respected independent Resources for the Future optimistically noted that “…we see alternative pathways for bring a lower-cost E85 to the pump. If and when ethanol produced by the newly patented, NG-driven Celanese process becomes available, owners of FFVs could realize substantial cost savings, up to $0.83/gge in 2015. If and when cellulosic ethanol becomes available at projected cost for full-scale productions, owners of FFFs could realize similar cost savings.”

Sleep easy! Good Times are coming for the nation and the consumer.

Model building, Playboy and the impact of ethanol on gasoline prices

I recently read a number of provocative articles (or their summaries) by MIT’s Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith. They faulted a pair of respected researchers from Iowa State University, Dermot Hayes and Ziaodong Du, in somewhat harsh tones. According to Knittel, the Iowa State pair, in their ethanol-related studies over a three year period (from 2009 through 2012), exaggerated the impact of ethanol on gas prices using relatively low present day ethanol blends.

I thought I was reading the script for a new urban crime show about drugs. Knittel, frequently, used terms like crack ratio and crack spread, ostensibly to note the weak link, found by Hayes at Iowa State, between the prices of ethanol and oil and both to gas costs at the pump. According to the authors, the price of gasoline is not substantially affected by the crack ratio; that is, the relative value of gasoline compared to oil or the price of gasoline divided by the price of oil and the current volume of its ethanol content.

Knittel’s papers angered Hayes, of the Iowa study. He claimed that, over time, the crack ratio and crack spread reflected a pretty strong causal relationship to gas prices. Language in his response to Knittel’s critique reminded me of those wonderful days when I was a dean, listening to different faculty, sometimes personally and sometimes based on methodology, criticize other faculty based on differing research results. The search for academic truth is often a noble road, but paraphrasing Robert Frost, a “road less traveled” — a road often full of human frailty and intellectual potholes.

Despite their critique of each other, both Knittel and Hayes’ studies are important and both, when read in context, should help one better understand the role of ethanol in affecting the cost of gas at the pump. Knittel is more right than wrong when he indicates that the crack ratio and spread does not fully explain the effect of ethanol on gas and oil prices, over time, and he is also correct in challenging the model used by Hayes to identify a reduction of $0.89 to $1.09 on gas prices because of higher ethanol production and higher crude oil prices.

Hypothetically, in isolation from other variables, the higher the crack ratio, the higher the price of gasoline. Further, if the price of ethanol is relatively low or on a downward trend, increased use of ethanol in gasoline blends, in theory, would cause the crack ratio to go down and the spreads to be higher, assuming gas prices remain the same or increase. Good news for consumers! Right? Maybe? Not always? Not at all? Not sure? What if?

I cannot claim real modeling expertise and would not, even for a minute, arbitrate between Knittel and Hayes concerning their use of models and its result — in terms of Hayes, significant impact of ethanol, in terms of Knittel, minor impact of ethanol.

But in terms of the policy argument between them, I suspect Knittel comes out the winner (full disclosure: I did graduate from MIT and while I love Iowa’s rolling hills, I do not like the climate and the fact that the state does not have a great symphony, nor a NFL football or American League baseball team). He points out that the crack ratio’s fluctuations in the ‘80s occurred when oil prices both declined and increased. Ethanol was not a factor and the movements in the crack ratio were not based on ethanol production. He seemingly, correctly, faults the folks in Iowa for not using the crack spread model in their 2011 and 2012 papers to evaluate the impact of eliminating ethanol because the two models —crack ratio which they used and crack spread which they didn’t — produce significantly different results and policy implications.

What does the dispute over models and model use have to do with public policy? A lot! The ethanol supporters touted the Iowa studies to support their claim that increased ethanol use reduces costs to consumers in a major way. Conversely, the ethanol critics suggest that the Knittel analysis debunks the assertion that use of ethanol as a blend will reduce gas prices in a major way.

Knittel suggests the Iowa studies vastly overstate the cost-related benefits of ethanol to the consumer and that Iowa’s model disregards or blurs the effect of price changes and swings in price of both ethanol and oil. Knittel also indicates that that the relationships between oil and gas prices, as well as oil, gas and ethanol prices are much less precise and more complicated than indicated by Hayes’ modeling efforts. Prices of all three fuels are much more subject to behavior and external events than acknowledged by either Knittel or Hayes.

The dialogue between Knittel and Hayes is helpful in sorting cost and price issues regarding ethanol and gasoline. I hope they continue at it, with less emotion, and with analyses better grounded in methodological analyses that generate a better job of linking model building with experience and empiricism. Meanwhile, no matter whether you believe the effect of ethanol on gas prices is high, moderate or low, if the U.S. government acquiesces in the use of higher ethanol blends like E60 and E85, and if the cost spread between ethanol and gasoline continues, an increasingly visible positive impact on fuel prices will likely be witnessed at the pump. Apart from any possible price differential related to use of higher blends, increased use of ethanol as an alternative transitional transportation fuel is in the public interest. According to most reputable studies, such use will respond well to many environmental problems caused by gasoline and it will help reduce America’s need to import oil…a continuing security problem.

Epilogue: I once taught a reasonably popular class on policy development and models. To liven up the class, I told the students that economic and policy models are abstractions of reality and to the extent that the models’ abstractions helps students understand reality, they are “good” models. They asked for examples. It was a late evening and I was tired. I told them to go look at the centerpieces in Playboy and Playgirl. Both presented models of airbrushed men and woman. At our next class, I asked the students if the models increased their understanding of men and women. They were bright and eager students, at least for this assignment, and they indicated, “No.” The models tilted too far toward abstractions and too far away from real world experience. They seemed to learn a lesson about the value of at least some models.