OAK BROOK, IL – There's been so much fuss over gasoline-electric hybrids, plug-in electric vehicles and battery-powered EVs in recent years that ethanol and increasing the amount of alcohol-blended ethanol have gotten little attention, promoters of the fuel say.
"EVs, plug-ins and hybrids have gotten all the press," says Mike O'Brien, vice president-market development for Growth Energy, an organization representing ethanol producers that is trying to spread the word on the merits of the alcohol-gasoline blended fuel.
O'Brien tells a meeting of the Midwest Automotive Media Assn. that while all vehicles today are engineered to run on E10 ethanol, a blend of 10% alcohol and 90% gasoline, the push is on to increase the use of E15 ethanol, with a higher 15% blend, to reduce petroleum consumption in the U.S., currently 18.8 billion barrels of oil a day. The country produces only 5.7 billion barrels a day.
Though not possible to say just how many barrels of petroleum would be saved by using more E15, O'Brien cites estimates that the U.S. saved 465,000 million barrels of petroleum in 2012 by using E10.
O'Brien admits that with its higher concentration of alcohol, E15 reduces mileage 1.5% compared with E10, but insists the loss in fuel economy is offset by a 2.5% decrease in the price of a gallon of E15 compared with E10.
"So the mileage goes down, but the cost per mile driven goes down more to offset it," he says.
But, O'Brien says, few service stations sell E15, a problem compounded by the fact not all auto makers recommend the use of E15 fuel in their vehicles.
The American Automobile Assn., for example, recently told members that nationally only 5% of vehicles on the road today have auto makers’ approval to use E15 – flex-fuel vehicles and ’01-and newer-model cars, light trucks and SUVs. When gasoline prices spike, some consumers fill up with the lower-priced E15 to save money, but AAA warns motorists against using a fuel not recommended for their vehicle.
Andy Randolph, engine technical director for Earnhardt Childress Racing, supports O'Brien’s call for expanding E15’s availability and usage.
"Actually, all cars can use E15 now," he says. "It's just like (how) manufacturers today recommend premium fuel in their cars, but people use regular anyway.
“It's not a combustion problem. Sensors in the exhaust system adjust the air/fuel ratio for E15, since alcohol carries oxygen and E15 has more alcohol and therefore more alcohol than E10. Older-than-2000-model cars can't adjust the air/fuel ratio and as a result (they) flash on the ‘check-engine’ light. As 2000-and-older models leave the road the potential for E15 usage increases."
Higher-alcohol-content ethanol got a big push a few years ago, in part because promoters said the plan was to use garbage to produce ethanol rather than rely on corn, which would reduce both petroleum consumption and the amount of trash in landfills.
"You can make ethanol from garbage or pig manure or kelp from the ocean," Randolph says, "but the key is cost-effectiveness, and to produce it at a cost that's competitive with gasoline by using garbage hasn't been cost-effective."
Growth Energy notes using corn to produce ethanol doesn't rob potential food supplies, estimating that of every $1 spent at the grocery store, only $0.03 to $0.04 represents corn-based products.
"Besides," Randolph says, "we found that by focusing on corn we were able to make improvements and do it even better, like using more of the corn, like the stalks, to increase our yields and the volume of ethanol produced."
As for waiting for more auto makers to recommend E15, O'Brien says "stay tuned," because stricter corporate average fuel economy and emissions levels coming in 2016 will dictate increased use of E15 and even higher concentrations, such as E25.
"We're not saying consumers have to use E15. We’re asking them to try it,” O’Brien says. “When they see it costs less than E10, they'll buy it in greater volumes. And when retailers sell more E15 than their neighbor selling E10, more retailers will add E15.
"It comes down to economics. As more stations add E15, and as the lower price increases station traffic, and as the retailers make more money from the traffic there will be more aggressive E15 marketing and more interest in E15,” he says.
“An E15 education program is starting Oct. 1 in Minneapolis with hopes to add 20 retailers by the end of the year."
O'Brien and Randolph say another way to promote greater use of ethanol would be to allow consumers to "dial up" the amount of alcohol blend at the pump, citing a station in Michigan that does that now. The pump shows the price decreasing as the amount of ethanol blend rises, which proponents hope will increase interest in using ethanol with higher alcohol content.