By on February 16, 2010

GM is spending about $100 million a year adding flex-fuel capability to our vehicles. We can’t afford to leave this capital stranded… I think it would be very helpful if we could get government assistance. But I really want the oil industry, I want the people who are at this conference, I want the government and I want us to just work together to make ethanol a reality,

This was the message the GM’s Tom Stephens took to the Renewable Fuels Association’s National Ethanol Conference in Orlando. And though Stephens’ exhortation of the ethanol industry makes for a pleasant addition to GM’s typical ethanol message (i.e. the first sentence of the quote), it’s little more than filler. GM’s push to align itself with the ethanol industry continues unabated, as Stephens reveals that half of all GM vehicles will be flex-fuel capable by 2012. The problem is that GM reckons the country needs another 10k E85 pumps (up from the current 2k), and since the ethanol industry would effectively collapse without government support, nobody from the industry is jumping in to take responsibility for this self-serving infrastructure project.

Today’s there’s 2,200 (ethanol fuel stations) that are out there but that’s not enough. Two-thirds of the pumps are concentrated in 10 states and those 10 states have only about 19 percent of the flex-fuel vehicles that we have on the road. That’s a big problem for us.

Though Stephens can quantify the problem, and hope that the industry will fix it, he’s whistling in the wind. Even with government blending mandates and tax credits, few localities have any interest in expanding ethanol’s availability, in no small part due to its highly questionable environmental benefits (in the current corn-based form). In fact, the Southern California Association of Governments recently turned down $11m in federal grants aimed at expanding ethanol pump availability. Why? As one representative put it:

If we could prevent forest fires that’s a good thing. However, preventing forest fires by cutting down every tree in the forest might not be the way to accomplish that… You have to consider carbon emissions in your land use, you have to consider everything. That is something that has not been done by the boosters of ethanol.

Local companies confirm that without the federal grants, the pumps will not be built. If production, blending and infrastructure construction must be paid for by the government to make ethanol a viable gasoline alternative, well, how viable is it really? The irony in all this: corn use in ethanol production is actually increasing, and thanks to the new Renewable Fuel Standard proposed rules, it likely will continue to. And all because political convenience is a far more persuasive argument in Washington than mere science.

The fact that GM remains so whole-heartedly in favor of this country’s continued flirtation with the welfare queen of alternative energy will not help wash the “Government Motors” label off anytime soon.

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25 Comments on “E85 Boondoggle Of The Day: GM Still Tilting At Biofuels...”


  • avatar
    Roxer

    The people in charge of E85 should read the last E85 post here on TTAC. It explains everything quite easily and the linked article is fully in-depth. They should abandon this!

  • avatar
    Steven02

    With the rules for CAFE, I know that many are using flex fuel capabilities to help the numbes. Nissan, Ford, GM, Toyota and Chrysler all have flex fuel vehicles. Honda does it outside the US (I am not sure they do it inside the US).

    Either way, flex fuel has its own problem called the chicken or the egg. Do people make the cars for them or do people make the pumps? Hard to have one without the other. IMHO, I think that corn based ethanol isn’t great. I think other alternatives for biofuels isn’t a bad idea, but it seems that corn has to many problems to become viable.

    This isn’t just a GM problem. All the manufactures want this simply because of credits with CAFE.

  • avatar

    One gov’t mandate I could live with is saying that all “gasoline” powered new cars have to be flex-fuel capable. The technology isn’t that expensive, less than $100/car. Not because of ethanol, which doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you use sugar cane or sugar beets or develop an efficient cellulosic process, but because it would mean that the car could run on any liquid fuel, including methanol and butanol. Ethanol gets most of the news, but we have 600 years worth of coal that can easily be turned to methanol and butanol is being backed by some serious money, including DuPont.

    Rather than help create a boondoggle for ethanol production, flex-fuel cars would allow true competition for liquid transportation fuels.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    I believe that for the most part, E10 capable cars should be able to use Butanol without any changes at all, Ronnie.

    See here: http://www.butanol.com

    Methanol, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

    BTW, why not simply use the tried and proven Fisher-Tropsche (sp) method of turning coal into GASOLINE?

    The South Africans do this and provide for themselves 50% of their liquid fuel needs nationwide, from South African sourced coal. Interestingly, they use AMERICAN licensed technology (obtained as war reparations from the Nazis) to do it! The company is called SASCO (South African Synthetic Oil, Limited).

    Methanol is bad news – isn’t in highly corrosive? Doesn’t it have an invisible flame / which puts rescuers / EMS people in grave danger?

    Our infrastructure – like it or not – and our vehicles are built around gasoline.

    Butanol is essentially a drop-in substitute for gasoline, and coal can be made into gasoline.

    We have adequate coal to provide 400-500 years worth of driving right in our own country, by all guestimates.

    What are we waiting for? Oh yeah, sorry, we have to get past this idiotic Ethanol stupidity first…. and both Generous / Government motors and the government itself have already “chosen” the winner of the “alternative fuels race” no matter how foolish their decision is!

    Makes me want to scream.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      Mr. C, about a decade ago, the futurists were costing the coal to gasoline conversion at about $85 per barrel, and this was back when crude was at $25-30 per barrel or so. It may be fair to say that the conversion cost has at least doubled in the meantime, and still out beyond even crude’s recent high point. I think you’re right that we have plenty of automotive fuel under our feet, but the price may not be right, right now.

  • avatar
    zenith

    I still believe that the future of alternative fuels lies in sewage/garbage-derived methane.

    Not all parts of the nation are suitable for corn production but people everywhere throw compostable garbage out and go to the bathroom.

    I read of another negative aspect of ethanol production in last night’s OMAHA WORLD-Herald. Farmers who used to grow veggies for seed companies are getting out of that business to grow high-ethanol-yield hybrid corn. Veggie garden seeds could double in price this spring and spot shortages are even predicted.

    Typical self-cotradictory govt. Exhort the masses to eat more veggies, then promote ag policies that discourage veggie production.

    • 0 avatar
      bmoredlj

      Not to mention the massive wealth of waste continuously produced by the livestock industry…if all that crap could be harnessed to power cars…

    • 0 avatar

      Most livestock waste is already recycled as fertilizer or feed. Now if we could recover all that methane that cows belch and fart, it might be a useful source of energy, but for the most part, the solid waste from livestock is recycled one way or another. Most of the pollution from agriculture has to do with chemical runoff, not animal waste. It’s not pleasant living near a swine farm, with lakes of manure, but that manure has value as fertilizer.

    • 0 avatar
      Christy Garwood

      Ronnie, check out the book by Michael Pollan called Omnivore’s Dilemma. Most concentrated animal feed operations (CAFO) for cows are serving up corn feed, which requires hormones to be fed to the cows so they can digest it. And guess where the corn comes from? I have been reading recently that methane is a bigger contributor to global warming than CO2, and that a big increase in the methane in our air is from those CAFOs! What a web we weave!

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Omnivore’s Dilemma had to be one of most singularly depressing books I’ve read in a long while.

    • 0 avatar
      Christy Garwood

      Sorry to hear that about the book, psarhjinian. I learned a lot about the food I eat. But didn’t the chapter on wild boar and chantrelles excite you? My brothers taught me how to shoot a rifle when I was eleven and I have had no desire to shoot a weapon since. But hunting for wild boar sounded fun. I read the book about the same time old GM was doing their Go Yellow promo for E-85.

      IMO, the whole E-85 based on corn premise matches Lutz’s opinion on global warning. However, when I talk to the Brazilian’s about sugar cane E-85 I start warming to the idea. Better yet, I hope Coskata is successful with Flexethanol. In Brazil, they burn down the cane stalks to grow a new crop, directly releasing CO2 from the burn-off. Coskata could use both the cane and the stalks in their process. I see ethanol/ flexethanol as a choice among many ways to propel cars in the future.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Sorry to hear that about the book, psarhjinian. I learned a lot about the food I eat. But didn’t the chapter on wild boar and chantrelles excite you?

      The problem is how all-pervasive the issue of food quality really is. HFCS ends up in foods that have absolutely no business containing sugar, let alone corn starch or syrup. And then there’s the use of corn as a feed by animals who can’t use it.

      You end up realizing exactly how massive and horribly unsustainable the problem is. You also end up understanding why diabetes is so prevalent, especially among the poor: good food is expensive and garbage is hidden in plain sight. And we’re exporting this system abroad.

      Weaning off of oil and coal looks like a cakewalk compared to kicking the corn habit.

    • 0 avatar
      rmwill

      E-85 is red state socialism. Follow the money.

      I rather like the idea of sewage/methane “assoline”

  • avatar
    chuckR

    I still believe that the future of alternative fuels lies in sewage/garbage-derived methane.

    That would make DC the country’s energy capital.

    Sorry.

    It’s just too easy.

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    Corn growers have america by the sac. The solution is to offer more incentives for diesel powered cars for the next 30 years until our nuclear power plants come on line, and we can support a grid to power electric cars with the new nuclear power plants.
    Thousands upon thousands of Americans will be put to work making nuclear power, and setting up the infrastructure to build and recycle electric cars.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      The next gen nuke plants would seem to be coming in at 6-7 times the capital cost of a comparable fossil burner. Nukes aren’t quite the panacea many of us hoped they’d be, if these numbers hold true. Operating costs seem to have slipped down below the fossils, if managed properly, but can this overcome high up-front financial burdens?

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      I’d do two things to get back at Iowa for imposing ethanol fuel mandates on us. 1) Lift the cap on the quantity of ethanol that can be imported duty free from the Caribbean Basin Initiative countries http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS21930.pdf and 2) schedule a big preferential voting (first, second, and third choice) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preferential_voting primary to occur before the Iowa caucus. Those two changes would crater the corn ethanol industry and greatly reduce Iowa’s influence in narrowing the field of presidential candidates.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Lift the cap on the quantity of ethanol that can be imported duty free from the Caribbean Basin Initiative countries

      As long as both parties have to pander to the “Keep the boot on Cuba’s neck” movement, this will never happen.

      (yes, I’m baiting Ronnie by posting this. :) )

  • avatar
    crash sled

    “…Stephens reveals that half of all GM vehicles will be flex-fuel capable by 2012.”

    .
    .
    .

    Well, that gives us our first potential milestone date for the GM IPO. Government Motors won’t likely allow that to happen before those platforms are booked and launched. I suppose the Volt will also be out by then, but I wouldn’t call Volt a “launch”. How about the Volt will be “weeped out”? ;)

  • avatar
    97escort

    Is everyone here oblivious to what is going on? We are past Peak Oil. Yet, the post and comments don’t even mention it.

    People who love cars should welcome GM’s support for ethanol. When gas goes back up to $4 and over, GM will be sitting pretty.

    Crude oil was up about $3 today and predictions are for $3+ gas by late spring and summer. Jeff Rubin predicts $200 crude oil by 2012.

    Follow developments at http://www.theoildrum.com/ and learn.

    I would like to see an E85 powered Prius. Why is Toyota dragging its feet? Toyota is missing an opportunity and this may be an opening for GM to gain market share as Toyota fumbles around with recalls.

  • avatar

    GM(and others)are NOT tilting at biofuels, they are tilting at ETHANOL. The way its rigged, it makes their mileage numbers look better.

    Rube Goldberg would be proud of the machinations and contortions US corn-ethanol supporters go thru to call it “green” and “a biofuel”. IT ISNT. Among many other things, it takes too much DIESEL to cultivate and transport a product that is inferior to diesel and even biodiesel.

    GM and the rest of the US automakers need to get off their hands and get small, clean DIESEL engine options in some models that would get 40 to over 50mpg with existing technology. V8s and even 6s are DEAD with $4,$5,$6 fuel.

  • avatar
    DetroitsaRiot

    Mileage with E85 is dismal compared to straight gasoline. E 85 is a CAFE gimmick.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    97escort, I agree fully that we’re past peak oil. Even if we were to tap into the massive “unmentioned” reserves in the American west, and were to use as much sewage and offal as we could to make bio-gasoline (see http://www.changingworldtechnologies.com) we are still going to be in a pinch, soon enough, worldwide.

    Likewise, we can’t grow sufficient corn to fuel our vehicles and get out of the box we’ve placed ourselves into.

    So yes, gas will be $3 per gallon by spring. It probably won’t be “allowed” to go much beyond that until after the November 2010 elections, if the powers that be haven’t lost control of the strings above their puppets by then.

    But $4 a gallon will start to look cheap, eventually, and all the people who panicked and parked their SUVs and trucks a short two years ago then promptly forgot and ran out and replaced their big ‘uns with slightly less big ‘uns are going to be pinched badly.

    The fact is, eventually, it’ll come down to rationing. I’ll guess within 10 years. And I mean, worldwide fuel rationing.

    I’ve lived with it in the US military when stationed in the UK. Some superpower; we couldn’t even afford the oil to heat the offices; just the barracks and the chow hall. (This was 1976-1978, before the ‘second’ oil crisis, even).

    I suspect it’s way too late to try to dodge the bullet by switching to nuke power and electric cars. Takes too long to build these things, especially with the massive delays of “planning permission”.

    In short, you’ll be better off to invest in shoemaking companies…

  • avatar

    For all you “peak oil” enthusiasts, cheerleading for the apocalypse, in the past few years there’s been more oil reserves discovered than oil pumped. In ’09 Exxon Mobil’s increase in proven reserves went up 133% of the amount of oil they took out of the ground. Exxon has been finding more oil than it pumps every year since 1994.

    It’s unfortunate that as a country the US doesn’t take full advantage of all of its energy resources. We don’t allow drilling of known reserves, we’ve done nothing with nuclear power for decades (Obama’s announcement yesterday is a small step). Members of the environmentalist religion have controlled the energy debate in the US. Of course one of the central tenets of that faith is that the US must be brought low, hence our self-crippling energy policy.

  • avatar
    AccAzda

    Alright…
    GM has been pushing this E85 b.s for the past 3-4yrs now, when the majority of the damn things it built.. will never see the fuel.

    On top of..
    There is less energy in the fuel to burn to even make it worth it, to make the engine complaint.

    On top of..
    E85 has CORN added to it.

    And that CORN that doesn’t get made into food / left out of food production.

    SO we are putting car fuel ahead of food production, all the while the vehicle doesn’t benefit from it at all!

    Then again..
    The only vehicles I see in MD / DE / Pa / NJ with these stupid badges are the GMT900 vehicles. And Id pay money to the bastards driving them to find out of they had any clue as to what the badges meant, or even the slightest clue behind the discussion and the money.. that went into producing a motor for such a stupid compliance.

    As for $200bux for a drum of oil…

    And a E85 Prius.
    What a waste of god damn time.

    If that ever happened…
    Id prob break down buy a GTI deisel and get more fun and mileage out it than any Pious Prius driver


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