Alternative Fools: E85

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
The United States has pledged to kick the oil habit before. But this time we mean it. Better yet, we have a solution that doesn’t require any of that furrin’ hybrid and diesel technology: E85. Produced from corn and other products grown in good old American soil, this 85 percent ethanol blend enables American-as-apple-pie small block V8s to burn less gasoline than a Prius. If every car, truck, and SUV were E85 now, why we could tell the Arabs to shove it! So all good Americans should buy an E85-capable full-sized SUV TODAY! Actually, on second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to “go yellow.”

Brazil, poster child of the E85 movement, has farmed its way to energy independence. But the same solution won’t work so easily for the US. For one thing, Brazil produces ethanol from sugar cane, a much cheaper foodstuff than corn or anything else we can grow in the decidedly non-tropical Midwest. Perhaps global warming will lend a hand? In the meantime, every ethanol booster not wedded to corn interests cannot stop talking about switchgrass. Research indicates that an acre of panicum virgatum might yield three times as much ethanol as an acre of zea mays. But even if switchgrass proves a fruitful source of ethanol, its potential impact on US energy policy is minimal.

Americans are gas hogs. While 186 million Brazilians burn the equivalent of about 10 billion gallons of gasoline each year (40 percent of it ethanol), 296 million Americans burn 150 billion gallons of gasoline each year (3 percent of it ethanol). In other words, if America really wants to be like Brazil, we should cut gas consumption use by 90 percent. (Hint: not many Brazilians drive full-size SUVs.) Otherwise, we’ll need ten times as much ethanol as Brazil to match the Brazilian fuel mix.

Converting the entire U.S. vehicle fleet to E85 would require about twenty times as much ethanol as Brazil currently produces for domestic consumption. Guess what? America is already producing as much ethanol as Brazil, and will soon pass them to become the world’s largest ethanol producer.

To achieve full gasoline self-sufficiency, we could convert 140 million acres of farmland to switchgrass. That’s about twice the acreage currently devoted to corn and a landmass nearly the size of Texas. Once we use American coal to produce the electricity needed to convert the result to ethanol, we’re there! Or not. Devoting so much American soil to ethanol would send farmland and food prices soaring. This will make American farmers very happy, and anyone who has to buy food unhappy. We might have to starve millions to do it, but we’ll be able to feed our SUVs without foreign oil!

Alternatively, we could import ethanol. If Corn Belt congressmen would agree to cut the protective tariff, Brazil would gladly increase sugarcane production to help meet our needs. Brazil has plenty of space for more cane fields. What good does so much rain forest do anyone, anyway? No matter which route is chosen, this huge ethanol production expansion won’t– can’t– happen overnight. As part of his energy less dependence policy, President Bush has decreed that American ethanol production must double by 2012. If US gasoline consumption stops growing, by that date all US gas could contain five percent ethanol. Maintain this torrid growth rate, and by 2018, all American gas could contain ten percent ethanol.

Guess what? Virtually all vehicles on the road today can already burn ten percent ethanol, commonly known as “gasohol.” In other words, existing cars can probably use all of the ethanol we can produce through at least 2018. So why do we need new, E85-capable vehicles and new E85 pipelines and pumps in 2006? Well, they do seem to make Corn Belt congressmen and their constituents happy. They help GM deflect criticism. And, perhaps best of all, an E85 Tahoe gets a CAFE rating of 33.3 miles per gallon. You see, this rating is calculated based on the very shaky assumption that E85 (only 15 percent of which is gasoline) will be used half the time. As a result, GM can sell more V8-powered vehicles without incurring fines. Without this loophole, it would have to actually sell more fuel efficient vehicles if it didn’t want to pay up.

Of course, GM didn’t create this incentive. It’s just intelligently reacting to it. Congress, pressured by Corn Belt people and industries, created the incentive. But why does E85 make the Corn Belt so happy? Why not simply mandate more gasohol, which can be sold everywhere and used by everyone today? I have no idea. For some reason, no one seems to be talking about this possibility. Clearly, we should.

Michael Karesh operates, a vehicle reliability and price comparison website.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • Engineer Engineer on Jun 22, 2006

    Excuse me, nweaver, but WHAT are you talking about? I believe you have confused two very different processes. Electrolytic production of hydrogen requires a lot of electricity. That is due to the fact that you are taking one of the lowest energy products known to man (water) and converting it to a fuel. It should be obvious that any process based on water as a major feedstock is unlikely make sense in terms of thermodynamics, but I digress. When you convert various carbon sources to liquid fuels, you are basically converting one fuel (carbon) to a more convenient one (liquid). You need very little external energy for that. If you needed to, you could run it completely without electricity from a grid. The energy that ends up in the product comes from the feedstock, not the electricity. Nuclear, great, until you consider what to do with the radio-active waste. Also, I don't think nuclear is a great source of liquid fuel for transportation - there are better sources around.

  • Fuelefficient Fuelefficient on Aug 30, 2006

    Like the Biomass to Liquids process. As an alternative to biomass, not sure if gas-to-liquids process using natural gas would be as efficient? Recently read an article in The Economist regarding electric cars. Tesla motors claims 1 cent per mile on its electrical car. Pricing for a Tesla is steep but it be a matter of time before the technology would flow through for mass production. Check out Nuclear power has currently become economically and enironmentally feasible. Commodities are expensive and fossil fuels polute the environment; Co2, mercury, sulphur etc... Not sure what exactly happens with the nuclear waste but does anyone have any thought on solar power and why it hasn't been implemented to reduce our current/future dependence on Nuclear power. With regards to Primary Fuels believe Biomass and Solar Power are our best alternative. Also GM and Ford etc... Have been screwing the American consumer for years with shitty fuel efficient vehicles. Its time they go under for their inefficiencies and Toyota and Honda take over.

  • JK I grew up with Dodge trucks in the US, and now live in Turin, Italy, the home of Fiat. I don't think Italians view this as an Italian company either. There are constant news articles and protests about how stalantis is moving operations out of Italy. Jeep is strangely popular here though. I think last time I looked at stelantis's numbers, Jeep was the only thing saving them from big big problems.
  • Bd2 Oh yeah, funny how Trumpers (much less the Orange Con, himself) are perfectly willing to throw away the Constitution...
  • Bd2 Geeze, Anal sure likes to spread his drivelA huge problem was Fisher and his wife - who overspent when they were flush with cash and repeatedly did things ad hoc and didn't listen to their employees (who had more experience when it came to auto manufacturing, engineering, etc).
  • Tassos My Colleague Mike B bought one of these (the 300 SEL, same champagne color) new around June 1990. I thought he paid $50k originally but recently he told me it was $62k. At that time my Accord 1990 Coupe LX cost new, all included, $15k. So today the same car means $150k for the S class and $35k-40k for the Accord. So those %0 or 62k , these were NOT worthless, Idiot Joe Biden devalued dollars, so he paid AN ARM AND A LEG. And he babied the car, he really loved it, despite its very weak I6 engine with a mere 177 HP and 188 LBFT, and kept it forever. By the time he asked me to drive it (to take him to the dealer because his worthless POS Buick Rainier "SUV" needed expensive repairs (yes, it was a cheap Buick but he had to shell out thousands), the car needed a lot of suspension work, it drove like an awful clunker. He ended up donating it after 30 years or so. THIS POS is no different, and much older. Its CHEAPSKATE owner should ALSO donate it to charity instead of trying to make a few measly bucks off its CARCASS. Pathetic!
  • RHD The re-paint looks like it was done with a four-inch paintbrush. As far as VWs go, it's a rebadged Seat... which is still kind of a VW, made in Mexico from a Complete Knock-Down kit. 28 years in Mexico being driven like a flogged mule while wearing that ridiculous rear spoiler is a tough life, but it has actually survived... It's unique (to us), weird, funky (very funky), and certainly not worth over five grand plus the headaches of trying to get it across the border and registered at the local DMV.