Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is E85 the next unleaded?

From Autoweek:

By now you’re probably aware of E85, whether you caught President George W. Bush hailing it in his State of the Union address or heard General Motors chairman Rick Wagoner touting it as he revealed his company’s line of flex-fuel vehicles.

So what’s all the hullabaloo? And if you want to help save the planet, should you hop on the E85 bandwagon?

E85 is the designation for a fuel that combines 85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline. E85-compatible—or flex-fuel—vehicles can run on E85 or regular unleaded gasoline. Because the alcohol in E85 can break down rubbers and plastics used in typical internal-combustion engine fuel systems, vehicles must be specially modified to allow its use. And to obtain maximum power from higher-octane E85, engines must be tuned to run on it, or be able to adjust timing and the air-to-fuel ratio when running on E85.

Supporters say the alternative fuel is environmentally friendly, reduces dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil, and takes advantage of America’s surplus of agricultural crops, like corn, that can be readily converted to ethanol for use in E85.

Critics note insufficient ethanol production facilities exist to significantly offset the nation’s appetite for fuel, that refineries aren’t adapted to producing E85, and that E85 is harder to transport because its corrosiveness means it cannot flow through existing gasoline pipelines. In addition, in most states E85 costs about the same as unleaded regular while costing the driver up to 15 percent in fuel-economy penalties because it does not pack the same explosive punch as gasoline.

Those negatives aside, Phil Lampert, executive director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, sees a substantial upside—and predicts prices will drop as more ethanol production comes on line in the next 18 months. But even with ethanol production slated to nearly double in the next 10 years, E85 will remain a bit player in the U.S. fuel market for years to come—which is not to say you won’t be burning some ethanol. Blends of up to 10 percent ethanol with gasoline may become more commonplace soon. Ethanol enhances the octane rating of the fuel, supplanting the toxic additive MTBE, which itself substitutes for lead as an octane booster.

E85 vehicles remain a small niche, with about 70 models capable of running on the alcohol mixture on the U.S. market since 1998. GM, which claims industry leadership on promoting E85 use and awareness, recently made a substantial push into E85 vehicles, announcing its 2005 and 2006 sport/utility vehicles and pickups, along with two Chevrolet car models, are E85 compatible. The company has marketed 28 flex-fuel models since 2000. Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury and Nissan have also sold or are still selling flex-fuel vehicles in the United States.

Owners of the estimated 5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road today—those who deliberately bought a vehicle for its flex-fuel capability—are likely to find their E85 consumption limited by the short supply of E85 fuel pumps in most states outside the Midwest farm belt. The number of E85 fueling stations doubled from 2005 to 2006, but that still means you can buy it at only 600 of the nearly 200,000 fueling stations in the United States. In most states E85 outlets exist only in major population centers. As a result, owners of flex-fuel vehicles often have to run on regular unleaded gasoline.

Minnesota, which has passed legislation to support the use of ethanol, leads the nation with 208 stations offering E85, while Illinois ranks second with 117. But the numbers drop dramatically from there, and in 13 states—including a number of Northeastern states that pattern their strict emissions rules after California—E85 isn’t sold at a single station. In the eco-friendly Golden State you will need access to the private E85 pumps at Vandenberg Air Force Base to get a tankful, or you will have to live, work and play in San Diego, home of the only publicly accessible E85 filling station in California.

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