CommentaryEthanol is a clean-burning, domestically produced biofuel that’s good for the environment, cuts our reliance on foreign oil and is cheap for auto makers to adopt. Is it too good to be true?

Yes. Advocating ethanol makes politicians look decisive, and it’s a great way for Detroit auto makers to boost their green image, but it’s not economical for the consumer.

And it is the consumer who ultimately will make or break ethanol as an alternative fuel.

In their well-meaning enthusiasm, proponents are glossing over ethanol’s shortcomings and setting themselves up for a backlash. Drivers learn on their first fill-up that ethanol delivers markedly reduced fuel economy and range.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s website, running a vehicle on E85 (a commonly used blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) costs hundreds of dollars more per year than regular gas.

If a driver knows what to expect, it’s not a problem. If it’s a nasty surprise, forget about them filling up again.

That’s unfortunate, because as far as alternative energy sources go, there are few better candidates.

Four billion gallons of ethanol a year already are annually mass-produced from home-grown corn, and as President Bush pointed out in his State of the Union address, we may be able to mass produce it from wood chips, grass and other less costly plant sources in the future.

And, unlike hybrid-electric vehicles, fuel cells or even diesels, making cars and trucks that burn E85 doesn’t require billion-dollar up-front investments from auto makers.

The fuel-system plumbing changes and engine-computer tweaks necessary to produce a flex-fuel vehicle capable of running on E85, gasoline, or any ethanol-gasoline blend in-between, costs only a few hundred dollars per vehicle.

What’s more, thanks to earlier government incentives that encouraged auto makers to build them, about 5 million flex-fuel General Motors, Ford and Chrysler vehicles already are on the road. GM and Ford now are promising to build hundreds of thousands more.

But there is no getting around the fact ethanol has 30% less energy content, and is just about impossible to get. Many states have only one or two ethanol pumps, although thousands more will be added over the next several years.

GM’s ethanol advocating website says a Chevy Tahoe that gets 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) combined city/highway fuel economy with gasoline gets only 13 mpg (18 L/100 km) burning E85.

These problems are not insurmountable. And, in the event of a major fuel crisis with lines at the gas pump and shortages, E85’s lower energy content and higher costs would no doubt be happily overlooked.

As part of our strategic defense initiative, every vehicle should have flex-fuel capabilities, and there should be a pump capable of dispensing E85 on every corner, just in case there is a critical fuel shortage some day.

But consumers – and voters – have to buy into ethanol first, literally and figuratively. That means giving them all the facts up front, not a sugarcoated sales pitch they ultimately will see through.Â

dwinter@wardsauto.com