Sep 10, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
The story starts off favorably to ethanol, though it ends up with some one-sided criticisms. PHEVs are briefly mentioned in the article; the accompanying large graphic entitled "Using Less Gas, or None at All" includes WHAT IS IT / PROS / CONS for: E85, Natural Gas, Hydrogen Fuel Cell, Electric, Biodiesel, Plug-In Hybrid.
The bullet points are generally OK, though important pluses and minuses are missing for many categories. Here's what it says for PHEVS:
WHAT IS IT: Hybrid electric vehicles than can be plugged in to the grid. Just a handful on the road, though enthusiasts are beginning to modify Toyota Priuses to plug in.
PRO: Runs a lot farther on battery; more use of domestic energy than regular hybrid; lower emissions.
CONS: Current battery technology might not be durable enough, though there is debate; added cost; lack of enthusiasm from hybrid makers.
For more on biofuels, see the links halfway down the page at http://www.calcars.org/globalwarming.html Another good intro is at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bringing Biofuels to the Pump http://www.nrdc.org/air/energy/pump/contents.asp, and its report, Growing Energy How Biofuels Can Help End America's Oil Dependence at http://www.nrdc.org/air/energy/biofuels/contents.asp
The New York Times
September 10, 2005, p. B.1
"Beyond Gasoline" series
The New Prize: Alternative Fuels
By DANNY HAKIM
DETROIT, Sept. 9 - A week ago, Benjamin Kleber was spending $3.39 a gallon at a gasoline station in Maryland when he noticed an obscure decal on his minivan.
"It's this sticker about the size of a business card that's stuck on the side of the gas flap that I never really paid attention to," said Mr. Kleber, a 25-year-old electrical engineer for a government contractor. The decal said he could be using E85, a fuel cocktail that consists mostly of grain alcohol, or corn-based ethanol, with a splash of gasoline.
Production of ethanol fuel, much of it blended in small doses with regular gasoline, has doubled to more than three billion gallons in the last half decade. This year, propelled by rising gasoline prices, E85 is finding new life as an alternative fuel.
It remains hard to find, to say the least, in part because many oil companies have no desire to put a competing product in stations that carry their banner. But the number of stations offering E85 has nearly doubled since January, to more than 460, mostly in corn-growing states like Minnesota. And because of incentives included in recently passed energy legislation, and the fact that E85 is now about 40 to 50 cents cheaper than a gallon of regular gasoline, E85 backers are expecting the surge to accelerate.
Being an engineer, Mr. Kleber had heard of E85. And after spending $58 to fill his 1998 Plymouth Voyager with regular unleaded last Sunday - "staggering," he said - he went home and began to do some research. He discovered that a station nearby sold the fuel for $2.67 a gallon. At current prices that could save him more than $14 a fillup.
So he decided he would switch to a fuel from the Midwest instead of the Mideast.
"I think we go through fossil fuel like a kid in a candy store without any concern about what happens when it runs out," he said.
In a nation that has shrugged at conservation for two decades, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on gasoline prices has been a bracing reality check. All year long, as prices have ticked up, a movement has been afoot away from jumbo sport utility vehicles and toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.
That said, it would take a radical change to wean the country off foreign oil. Still, more than ever before, the nation's roads are a moving laboratory with all manner of alternatives to gasoline combustion engines, often being driven by average Americans, if in small numbers.
There are cars powered by natural gas, by hydrogen fuel cells and by French fry grease. There are electric cars and hybrid electric cars that can be plugged into the power grid.
What separates E85 is that more than four million American cars and trucks have the ability to run on it right now, even though the majority of people who own these so-called flex-fuel vehicles are not even aware of the ability. Already, Brazil has turned to ethanol en masse, though the fuel there is derived from the more prevalent local crop, sugarcane.
Gregory J. Cobb recently replaced premium gasoline pumps at two of his five Indiana stations with E85. At one station near South Bend, he said, he was selling 24,000 gallons of E85 a month compared with the 1,700 gallons of premium gas he had been selling.
"One of the customers drove about 30 miles to the station; she said: 'I'm putting my dad's corn in the car. I'd rather do that than pay OPEC,' " Mr. Cobb said. "That's why we did it, too. If we're going to get diverse, away from dependency on foreign oil, we have to do this. And to be honest, our premium sales weren't doing much."
In Madison, Wis., Rebecca Bell and her husband, Kevin, started using E85 in the last couple of weeks to fuel their Ford Explorer and their Chevy minivan. They have also started carpooling with neighbors.
"I feel better that it's coming from the United States," said Ms. Bell, 34, a vice president of a veterinary drug company and a mother of three.
"If we continue to use foreign oil, we're always going to be in somebody's hip pocket."
Adrian Moses, a 55-year-old computer consultant in a suburb of St. Paul, said he had for several years used E85 to fuel his Ford Ranger pickup. "I do it because it's the right thing, not because of economics," he said, adding that it was "cleaner for the environment" and "made here in the Midwest, not in the Middle East."
Now, here are some of the catches.
For starters, it's hard to find the stuff. There are roughly 180,000 gasoline stations nationwide and fewer than 500 with E85. And ethanol can take us only so far. Huge tracts of farmland would have to be converted to corn production to provide enough fuel for significant portions of the American automobile fleet.
A recent study published in the journal BioScience forecast that for all cars and trucks to run on ethanol by 2048, "virtually the entire country, with the exception of cities, would be covered with corn plantations." Using more farmland to produce ethanol would also drive up food prices. And E85 cannot be transported through gasoline pipelines, because it sucks up grime and water.
E85 is also less energy-dense than gasoline, so a driver goes a bit less far on a gallon. Its current cost advantage is dependent on a 43-cents-a-gallon subsidy, versus a roughly 40-cent tax on a gallon of gasoline. Environmentalists have generally viewed the rise of flex-fuel vehicles as a boondoggle for automakers, because they are afforded fuel economy credits for making them. The credits have had the effect of driving up oil consumption. Many consumers who buy flex-fuel vehicles are not even made aware of the capability.
On the upside, ethanol is a domestic resource and most studies indicate that it reduces emissions of both smog-forming pollutants and global warming gases, the amount depending on how it is produced. An emerging process of creating ethanol from agricultural waste like cereal straw has the potential for far greater emissions reductions and more efficient land use.
This so-called cellulose ethanol has much greater potential than current ethanol, said Michael Wang, a researcher at the Center for Transportation Research at the Argonne National Laboratory, but, he added, "the technology has not arrived."
David Friedman, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, said, "ethanol has great potential to help the U.S. kick our oil habit, but that's 20 or 30 years away."
"Corn ethanol can help in the short term, but it has serious limitations, and none of this is going to work if we don't dramatically improve the efficiency of our cars and trucks."
Certainly, ethanol has its friends, like corn growers, and its enemies. In July, Corn Cob Bob, an ethanol industry mascot, was banished from Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa. Shell, a sponsor of the festivities, had expressed discomfort at the mascot's participation.
"Good old Corn Cob represents an industry association of ethanol producers, which includes some of our competitors in the retail fuel category," said Jan Rowley, a spokeswoman for Shell of Canada, adding that Shell had not intended to have Bob actually banned. Royal Dutch Shell has a stake in Iogen, a leader in developing cellulose ethanol.
The banning of Corn Cob Bob, who looks like a farmer with a corncob head, inspired a recent segment on the "Daily Show" on Comedy Central, culminating with the mock execution of the mascot by the comedian Rob Corddry.
"This world was never going to treat Corn Cob Bob fairly," explained Mr. Corddry, as soft piano music trilled in the background. "I wanted to show him a better place."