By on January 6, 2015

e85price

The recent fall in fuel prices isn’t just an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate their collective inability to remember the events of even the recent past; it’s also a decisive hammerblow to E85 plants and retailers across the country.

This has to be the case, right?

Well, it’s certainly the tack that the media has been taking over the past month, with most media outlets reporting significant drops in E85 consumption as “natural gasoline” falls below the $2 mark in many markets. Certainly, gasoline is lower in terms of inflation-adjusted pricing than it’s been in decades. I filled up my Accord the other day from below the “E” mark for a price of $30.20, obtaining 421 mixed-use miles from the resulting fillup. Each mile is costing me about six cents in fuel, compared to the approximately twenty cents per mile I paid to operate my Town Car eighteen months ago.

As fate would have it, however, the very thing that causes opponents of E85 to decry its assistance is allowing it to deliver some fairly staggering pricing. The “consensus opinion” is that a gallon of petroleum energy creates between 1.24 and 1.6 gallons of corn-based E85. Other base crops like sugar cane and switchgrass can offer much higher yields, but fundamentally when we think “ethanol” in the United States we think about corn-based ethanol. When the cost of petroleum drops, therefore, it has a massive effect of the cost of ethanol production.

Long-time TTAC readers will remember that I ran my now-deceased Town Car on E85 for some time and observed lower fuel economy, some stumbling, and skanky behavior as a result. At the time, E85 was $2.29 and gasoline was $2.79, numbers that didn’t quite work for E85.

What about $1.19 vs. $1.89? That’s a much bigger (62% vs. 82%) gap, and it’s courtesy of Michigan’s Yellow Hose Program. Gasoline hasn’t been that cheap since before Nixon. Seeing $1.19 on a fuel station sign, or even seeing the $1.36 that my local Kroger is asking for E85, is psychologically important, and we’re a country that runs on stuff like that.

I’m not going to fill up my not-quite-Super-Coupe with E85; it’s the one modern Honda that can’t handle the juice even with an adapter. Still, the numbers on E85 are now good enough that municipalities might consider filling their flex-fuel cars from the yellow hose, and corporations might follow. I’m also considering building a NASA race car that runs exclusively on E85. If I do that, look for future E85 reports from this writer to have much more factual data and much less descriptions of vodka spilled between someone’s legs, okay?

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51 Comments on “Is This E85’s Time To Shine?...”


  • avatar
    Chocolatedeath

    Come to think if it I havent seen one of those yellow hoses since I left NC to move to FL five years ago. Dont know where to find those hoses either. Saw lots in NC.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Please correct me if I’m wrong,
    but to run E85 in addition to updating the engine computer, the gas tank/pump/piping also requires an upgrade to prevent corrosion?

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      That’s pretty much true for late model cars that have more resistant plastic and rubber internal bits. For older cars, you should stay away from E85 altogether. The vehicles that can handle E85 with no problem are usually labeled FFV – flex fuel vehicles, and that’s most cars built in the last few years. If you’re still driving a ’99 Buick, E10 is the most ethanol your “3800” engine can handle. I wouldn’t put a steady diet of E85 in any car not a FFV.

  • avatar
    John R

    “I’m also considering building a NASA race car that runs exclusively on E85.”

    Great! Finally a venue to inquire about something that has been bouncing around in my head. What sort of performance benefit is there for E85? Especially as a gallon of the stuff produces less energy than a gallon of petrol.

    I see a lot of individuals convert everything from GT-Rs to BRZs to run on this stuff.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    There’s never been a good case to use food for fuel, unless you’re on the take, which will even become even more obvious now that gas prices are back to earth and this charade is allowed to continue

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      The case against corn-based fuel is way stronger & broader than that, and is something that hopefully any rational person, regardless of ideology (though sadly, not “party” affiliation – needless to say, as both “different” parties are corrupted by the same powers) can agree upon.

      Corn requires massive amounts of water, fertilizer & other energy & resource inputs to grow (so much so, that the corn-beholden CONgress had to essentially price Central/South American sugar cane – which needs 1/20th the amount of water & no fertilizers to grow robustly, and can be processed into ethanol for 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of corn ethanol – derived ethanol out of contention by tariffs AND subdisides).

      Using corn-derived ethanol as fuel raises food prices across the board, and prices of the plethora of other things deriving their existence/manufacture from corn or manipulated corn related molecules.

      Corn-derived ethanol is a scam on American consumers & taxpayers, plain & simple, and a massive pork subsidy to big Agriculture and even American Universities (whose many research departments are funded in huge measure by the farm lobby).

      Corn derived ethanol is an environmental, political, economic & taxpayer scam of an epic scale.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      The case against corn-based fuel is way stronger & broader than that, and is something that hopefully any rational person, regardless of 1deology (though sadly, not “party” affiliation – needless to say, as both “d1fferent” parties are corrupted by the same powers) can agree upon.

      Corn requires massive amounts of water, fertilizer & other energy & resource inputs to grow (so much so, that the corn-beholden CONgress had to essentially price Central/South American sugar cane – which needs 1/20th the amount of water & no fertilizers to grow robustly, and can be processed into ethanol for 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of corn ethanol – derived ethanol out of contention by tariffs AND subdisides).

      Using corn-der1ved ethanol as fuel raises food prices across the board, and prices of the plethora of other things deriving their existence/manufacture from corn or manipulated corn related molecules.

      Corn-derived ethanol is a scam on American consumers & taxpayers, plain & simple, and a massive pork subs1dy to big Agriculture and even American Universities (whose many research departments are funded in huge measure by the farm lobby).

      Corn derived ethanol is an environmental, political, economic & taxpayer scam of an epic scale.

    • 0 avatar
      carguy

      +1 Creating ethanol from corn is simply way too energy intensive. If it wasn’t for the corn lobby this bad idea would have died a long time ago.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Jack, don’t municipalities already run on tax-exempt fuel? (or, at least, exempt from state and local tax) And wouldn’t that tend to drop the price of gasoline quite mightily, making it again better, cost-wise, vs. E85? (E85 is already taxed lower, so eliminating said taxes doesn’t drop the price nearly as much.)

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Here is the issue at selling E85 at that price – the producers aren’t profitable so the pricing difference can’t be sustained under these models.

    The pricing of both gasoline and Exx is unsustainable – so this is only a blip – a blip that will go on longer than people think, but not forever.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    According to Uncle Sam, 2% of gas stations sell E85 and 5% of vehicles run on it. Those gas stations are disproportionately located in the Midwest, so in practice, many Americans have little or no access to E85.

    It exists mostly for CAFE compliance. I would imagine that most drivers find the lower MPG to be unappealing, even if the costs per mile are about the same.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      “5% of vehicles run on it”
      I’m surprised that all gas pickups and most domestic sedans only adds-up to 5% of vehicles. Are they counting roller skates, mowers, Big Wheels and Huffys?
      I would guess that the number is around 50% if you just count passenger cars and light trucks.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Your guess would be way off. US cars are made to run on E10 by default, but flex fuel E85 capability is not common at all.

        • 0 avatar
          heavy handle

          Is that so? It seems to me like every pickup has an E85 sticker on it (unless they run diesel, of course). Same goes for domestic sedans, minivans, SUVs and CUVs, full-size vans, etc.

          Seems common enough to me, but maybe you live in an area that doesn’t buy these vehicles.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            The 5% figure comes from the EIA, a federal agency. I’m not just guessing.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            It’s actually closer to 4%. Out of the 254 million cars in the US, 11 million are flex-fuel- Wikipedia

          • 0 avatar
            Lorenzo

            It seems most NEW cars are flex fuel, but the nation’s rolling stock is old, and not capable of running well, without damage, on E85. Maybe my 10 year old Buick can handle a half-tank once in a while, but that’s it.

          • 0 avatar
            mik101

            There is a difference between being able to run on it, and folks actually putting it in the tank as well.

  • avatar
    Dan

    I average 8.5 hours driving time between fuel stops in my car, 11 hours in the Ram I just bought. The 32 gallon tank in the Ram is awesome, all of my old trucks only held 26 and I’d fill up at 20 and change so putting 26-27 in this one is a full third better.

    I’d always thought that stopping the car for 13 gallons at a time was excessive, having the Ram for comparison I’ve downgraded that assessment all the way to genuine pain in the ass.

    Running E85 at 3/4 the energy density would put the truck where the car is now and at 240 miles a tank I’d be pit stopping the car every 6 hours.

    To save the equivalent of a quarter a gallon? Yeah right.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Jack,
    The whole concept of using corn to make ethanol and then mandating it be blended into gasoline is a political gift to the Midwestern corn farmers pure and simple. Given the high inputs of fertilizer needed to grow corn, producing ethanol for fuel from corn is not a sustainable idea. Better to use some waste agricultural products instead. But mother nature defends these carbohydrates with lignin that has proved resistant to fermentation technologies now in use to produce ethanol from corn.
    I would like to see the use of ethanol as an octane booster on a strictly economic basis. Given this years glut of corn, ethanol concentrations of 10% or less may an economic choice for ethanol as an octane booster. But, it should be up to the refiner to decide how to meet octane levels in their gasoline. Congress should repeal the mandate to use a minimum amount of ethanol in gasoline to demonstrate their dedication to the free market to the Libertarian and Republican, corn growing farmers.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      You are correct.

      I typed a lengthy reply that was eaten.

      Jack is being obtuse.

      Corn-derived ethanol is an environmental, economic, political & taxpayer scam that even rational people of different political ideologies should be able to recognize it as the outrageous scandal & pork barrel boondoggle that it truly is.

      • 0 avatar
        319583076

        For a few years, I worked directly with the most senior engineer in my company. He must have been making about $200k annually in salary although he spent most of his time at work in his office with his door closed – mostly running his mouth with his buddies. He also owned a hobby farm, which was an excuse to leave work for several weeks each year to tend his farm. He grew corn and the last year we worked together, he received $35k in subsidies for his corn which is public information.

        Things don’t work because we’re all selfish myopics exploiting anything we can for today’s gold star. A lot of people say, “Can’t blame a guy for taking money that’s available.” I say it’s not the right thing to do, I heap plenty of derision on this sort of thing.

        Ethanol is just one of the complex scams currently perpetrated by rich, powerful people chasing their money dragon. “How much better can you eat, Mr. Mulwray?” But their addiction is not about having it, it’s about getting it. This is a point to marinate in, for it is the essence of humanity.

      • 0 avatar
        mor2bz

        so right. I hate ethanol with a passion. we are the laughing stock
        (if such an envirnmental crime could be considered funny) of the rest of the world.

        When George Bush Jr. had his hand on an ethanol pump and said “this is the future”, one just knew that his oil cronies were not going to
        sell one drop less oil.

        I have a motorcycle with rubber diaphragms in the carbs, and rubber o-rings. Alcohol just eats them up!

        The ratio mentioned earlier how a gallon of gas yeilds 1 1/2 gal. ethanol I am sure does not account for the fact that ethanol yields
        10% less gas mileage.

        The farmers must be weened off this subsidy. And we need to stop importing oil. This boom and bust cycle for oil is such bullshit.
        If we stopped fracking, oil importation, and ethanol production maybe we could have a stable sustainable secure oil market.

        ok now come after me.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    The true gift of E85 is that automakers get to count those cars that are compatible differently in their CAFE #s. They actually get a bonus for producing them which is insane considering that E85 actually results in lower fuel economy.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      But using E85 results in using much less gasoline/crude. The sweet spot in most FFVs is E45~E50 blend. With that you’ll get pretty much the same MPG as E10 and make more HP. That was my experience when using E85 in my FFV Taurus. So at that rate you use about 1/2 as much gasoline and spend less on fuel, not to mention the boost in power particularly low end torque. When we first got the FFV I filled it up when I took it on a trip since it wasn’t available locally. When my wife drove it when I got home she asked “what did you do to my car”. I cowered thinking that she found some dent or something, so I sheepisly answered nothing. So you didn’t modify it or something because it seems to have a lot more power.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Oy, ate my effin comment, let’s try again.

    The real gift of E85 is that automakers get a bonus in their CAFE #s for producing those cars even though they actually get LOWER fuel economy when running E85. Some environmental benefit.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      They use less oil, which is the point.

      • 0 avatar
        Truckducken

        As long as you ignore the oil used to produce the corn and the ethanol, among other things.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          Ethanol is energy positive, in that it creates food byproducts and converts sunlight that you would not have used otherwise into motor fuel.

          In contrast, oil is energy negative. Energy is lost in the process of refining crude oil into motor fuel.

          • 0 avatar

            It doesn’t take energy to convert corn into ethanol? How do you fit the corncobs into the fuel filler door?

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            I already explained it. I’d say that it’s a bit disingenuous to count the BTUs from sunlight and soil that go into making ethanol. (When you’ve figured out a way to bottle that sunlight for some other use, then I’ll be willing to revisit my position.)

          • 0 avatar
            DeadWeight

            You should acknowledge the fertilizer, water (vast quantities relative to other plants/crops) & other resources required to plant, grow & harvest corn, to be complete in your analysis & reply.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            I did.

            I’m not particularly a fan of corn-based ethanol, but car forums are filled with posters who use it to show off their paranoia and lack of research skills.

            Complaining that ethanol is energy negative, even though gasoline is obviously energy negative, is just ridiculous. Likewise, including the BTUs from something such as sunlight, which is being produced by the sun with no tradeoff for any other use, is equally ridiculous.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    Doesn’t E85 have a much higher equivalent octane rating than E10? Wouldn’t this allow much more aggressive timing and resulting increases in power output and efficiency?

    I seem to remember some guys at MIT that built an engine for E-85 a few years back that ran almost diesel levels of compression via boost. They claimed big power and fuel economy gains.

    I wonder how those folks complaining about the reduced power running their EcoBoost Mustangs on regular would fare with E85…

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      There are drag racers here in the midwest using it with high compression, it’s really cheap compared to “racing” gasoline.

      But right now in Indiana near me, E85 is priced ABOVE E10 by 20 cents.
      And E10 is a buck below ULSD. Unique times.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Yes absolutely. The problem is when the engine has to be designed for multiple fuel blends and has to be compromised to run on both.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yes you can run more timing, compression or both. Build an engine designed for E85 and it will make a lot more power and get as good or better MPG as the engine you can build that will run on pure gas. Even a FFV makes more power with E85. For a couple of years Ford advertized the HP with an asterisk next to it. In the fine print were words to the effect of “when operated on E85” and then often another lower number for running on gas.

  • avatar
    John R

    “I’m also considering building a NASA race car that runs exclusively on E85.”

    I see a lot of individuals tuning everything from GT-Rs to BRZs to run on E85. What exactly are the performance beneits of this stuff if it produces less energy?

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      Runs cooler, higher octane. That means that you can push the engine a lot more before getting detonation.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      There are a couple of benefits. In addition to those mentioned by heavy handle a big one is the air fuel ratio. A gallon of E85 needs less air to burn. Getting air into an engine is the hardest part so you can stuff a lot more fuel in with the same amount of air and thus make more power. So you can make more power with cheap E85 than 110 octane race fuel and save a ton of money in the process.

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    E85 has approximately 70 percent of the BTU of E10 gasoline. The difference in fuel cost per mile isn’t worth the ethanol damage to non flex fuel vehicles.

  • avatar

    When Jennifer Granholm was governor of Michigan she promoted corn ethanol, no doubt to curry favor with the state’s many corn growers, but Michigan is the leading producer of sugar beets in the U.S. and while they’re not as good of a source as sugar cane, ethanol from sugar beets has a significantly better energy-out:energy-in ratio than that made from corn (about 2:1 vs 1.3:1).

    Ethanol *can* make sense as a liquid fuel but corn ethanol is mostly politics, not sound energy policy.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      In my neck of the woods, a local AM talk radio station is running full ads and these weird, mini-ads promoting ethanol.

      The first time I heard it, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, but between two “normal” ads you’ll hear a voice say, “Your car runs better on ethanol, it just makes sense!”

      I am anti-ethanol for many reasons, but this sort of weird propaganda is enough for me to oppose it.

  • avatar
    madman2k

    I think CNG powered vehicles in many cases would make more sense than gasoline or E85; the infrastructures in most cities are not quite there yet but with some work they could be.

    All of the city busses in San Diego run CNG and there are several fueling stations open to the public around the metro area. Still, “several” doesn’t quite cut it for a metro area with several million people living/working there (the census numbers might say a lower number, but it’s northern Tijuana).

    Here in OKC, there seems to be a few more public CNG stations available.

    I don’t believe these current gas prices will last long, and when they shoot back up next time there’s some overseas political issue, CNG will go back to being cheaper.

  • avatar
    Tomifobia

    I’m currently driving a 2011 Fusion with the 2.5 4 cylinder. Open the fuel door, and there is a notice around the filler that reads “E85” surrounded by a “NO” symbol. I’ll follow the manufacturer’s advice and avoid it.

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