Important Points About Ethanol As Fuel

Friday, June 12, 2015

The following is an open letter from Marc Rauch, the executive vice president and co-publisher of The Auto Channel to Loren Steffy, writer for Chron. Reprinted here with Marc Rauch's permission.

Hi Loren -

I just had the opportunity to read your "Ethanol Chronicle" series that was published on the Houston Chronicle website from February to March 2007. (http://blog.chron.com/lorensteffy/category/the-ethanol-chronicles)

Yes, I realize that that was eight years ago, but one of the great aspects of the Internet is that things are often where they were left for anyone to see and comment on.

Nothing much has changed in the efforts to find an alternative to petroleum oil engine fuels. Likewise, the typical arguments used against ethanol in 2007 are still being used today. So while I'm very tardy in commenting on your series, I think that my counter-arguments are as fresh as ever. Additionally, while the same arguments are still being used against ethanol, the research and science has progressed considerably. It may be too late to include my comments at the bottom of the Houston Chronicle webpages, but perhaps you will revisit the subject again in the near future and find my remarks useful to that new effort.

It seems to me that your experience with using E85 was generally very positive and intuitive. For example, the fueling process didn't require learning any new pumping or safety techniques, and you didn't have to travel extended distances to unsavory filling station locations. I mention this because if you were doing a comparison between using a gasoline-powered vehicle and a CNG-powered vehicle you would have had to learn some new pumping techniques, learn to wrestle with obstinate CNG hoses, and get acquainted with some dark CNG fueling facilities that you wouldn't want your wife or daughter to have to use on their own. (Incidentally, I own a dedicated CNG vehicle and I'm a big fan of this alt fuel, but it does present these challenges.)

What's more, your story didn't indicate any performance difficulties or changes when you used the E85. I would describe your experience with the flex fuel vehicle and the fuel as having been "seamless." I presume you would agree with that.

The negative experience would have been the lower MPG from E85 as compared to regular gasoline (I assume it was E10, but might have been some other formulation that was available to you in 2007). By my calculations you experienced about an 18% reduction in MPG. However, you correctly assessed that the lower price of E85 mitigated the loss in MPG, and could even make the lower MPG irrelevant by providing a net gain from using E85. As a matter of interest, at the E85 filling station that I typically use, E85 is nearly 25% less than E10. So even if I experienced 18% fewer MPG I would come out well ahead. As it turns out, my MPG loss is not nearly so great (under 10% difference), so I come out far ahead.

Along the way you were exposed (or perhaps re-exposed) to some of the negative criticisms of ethanol, such as the Pimentel-Patzek EROEI claims and the limitations of E85 availability. And your series concluded with what I feel is Henry Groppe's biased pro-petroleum oil praise.

Before I continue, I would like to tell you that what I thought was really great about your test was that you did it by renting a flex fuel vehicle. Your experience is the first I've ever come across in which an "objective" journalist writing about ethanol fuels actually stepped up to the plate and did a real on-the-road comparison. Time after time I've read critical reviews of ethanol in which there was no hands-on testing conducted by the author. In my personal experimentations over the years I have been fortunate enough to be given plenty of flex fuel and non-flex fuel press vehicles with which I could do similar tests. Added to that, I've been willing to use my own personal gasoline-powered vehicles as guinea pigs. Consequently, I'm always suspect of a report damning ethanol (or any other alt fuel) that doesn't include practical personal experience.

Writing The Ethanol Chronicles in the year you did, you of course didn't have the opportunity to evaluate the Pimentel-Patzek 2005 study against the numerous opposing studies and backlash that were to come in subsequent years. This includes challenging reports by domestic and foreign universities, USDA, Argonne National Laboratory, and the findings revealed in an hour-long televised debate that pitted Pimentel and Patzek against Michigan State University Professor Bruce Dale and the NREL's John Sheehan.

To say that Pimentel-Patzek has been soundly rebuked is an understatement. Unfortunately the weight of the oil industry's checkbook has been able to overcome any perfunctory media discussion of Pimentel-Patzek's (flawed) results.

Your concern that there were not enough E85 filling stations is still a valid concern. It would definitely be helpful to any motorists (with or without flex fuel vehicles) if E85 was as ubiquitous as E10. However, one of the best features of a flex fuel vehicle is that it doesn't require only one type of fuel. As compared to having a dedicated CNG vehicle that is dead-in-the-water if it can't get to the next CNG facility, a flex fuel or non-flex fuel vehicle (that uses high level ethanol-gasoline splash blends) can go right back to E10 or non-ethanol gasoline when needed. So there should never be any "range anxiety" issues.

Another point you mentioned in 2007, and couldn't have predicted the outcome was the elimination of the national at-the-pump subsidy for using E85. As you know, that subsidy was retired nearly two years ago. It was believed that the price of E85 would then go higher than E10. However, that hasn't happened, the price of E85 is still lower than E10, and often much, much lower than ethanol-free gasoline.

In response to the encouraging results that you shared with Henry Groppe, you quoted Mr. Groppe as saying "That’s not the point....Part of the reason oil has been our fuel of choice for so long is because it’s incredibly efficient and has a high energy content."

I'm afraid that Mr. Groppe's long association and probable financial entanglements with the petroleum industry has either clouded or obfuscated the real reason why petroleum oil fuels have been our primary engine fuels for so long: The petroleum industry bought that position through financial considerations and duplicitous, sometimes deadly, actions. For the sake of brevity I will not present what these duplicitous, sometimes deadly actions are, but I would be most happy to provide extensive details and references upon your request.

Moreover, the issue of gasoline's BTU rating being higher than ethanol is completely irrelevant to any comparison between gasoline and ethanol. If "higher energy content" had any relevancy when comparing fuels used in internal combustion engines then you would be able to use diesel fuel in a gasoline-powered vehicle and get better mileage. Engine-fuel optimization is the key, not BTU rating. In my opinion, a man in Mr. Groppe's distinguished position in the energy industry should have known this and not have made this comment.

Loren, ethanol can become a viable replacement for gasoline, or at the least a very significant part of the solution to ending our oil addiction, but only when the truth is allowed to be seen and heard.

Very truly yours,

Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher
THE AUTO CHANNEL LLC
www.theautochannel.com

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