GM Calls E85 'Our Best Near-Term Solution'

General Motors has apparently chosen E85 ethanol as the best “near-term” alternative fuel solution. In a post on GM’s FastLane blog, technical fellow Candace Wheeler, says that the carmaker is ready to move forward with an ambitious expansion of flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on either gasoline or corn ethanol blends of up to 85 percent.

Despite commitments from major automakers like GM, E85′s long-term outlook remains in question. Why’s that? Because evidence suggests that very few people who own flex-fuel vehicles actually end up using the fuel. Just 2,500 of the 162,000 gas stations in the United States actually offer E85, which in most parts of the country offers little to no cost savings compared to standard gasoline.

Dr. Wheeler said that GM has pledged to produce 850,000 flex-fuel vehicles, beginning next year. That would represent a 55 percent increase over current levels. “Our 2010 lineup represents the most (flex-fuel vehicle) models on the market,” wrote Wheeler. “With many new stations opening up, especially in the south and south central regions, it’s becoming easier find a place to fill up.”

But How Just ‘Near-Term’ is E85?

Indeed, Wheeler cites a 17 percent increase in ethanol production over last year’s levels, to 839,000 barrels per day, as a reason why E85 might catch on. But even if expiring production and blending incentives are extended by congress later this year, there’s still reason to be skeptical of whether it will catch on. E85 isn’t in a position to immediately benefit from a spike in gas prices, and could be edged out by increased production of other alternatives should prices rise more gradually.

Even if the majority of American cars were to have flex-fuel capability and gas prices were to somehow increase to 2008 levels next summer, most drivers would have no way of cashing in on the savings until enough fuel pumps were installed at enough gas stations nationwide. Furthermore, even with production of ethanol rising, it’s unlikely that enough E85 could be produced to meet a significant level of demand in the near term—especially without impacting food prices.

Of course, there isn’t any single alternative fuel technology that could be plugged in quickly enough to fully capitalize off a rapid spike in gas prices, but with just about 6 percent gas station availability, flex fuels are in a far worse position to drive new vehicle sales than hybrids, clean diesel or the most efficient gas-powered ICEs.

For Carmakers, the Question is ‘Why Not?’

So why is GM so eager to expand its production of flex fuels? One reason is that so long as the production capacity exists, it costs automakers virtually nothing to add E85 capability to a vehicle. That capacity has been in the pipeline for some time now, and the auto industry—which has pledged to make half of its cars flex-fuel vehicles by 2012—has little reason not to go ahead with those plans.

Furthermore, exotic 22-year-old language in the US Corporate Average Fuel Economy laws allow carmakers to effectively double count the increased efficiency that they get from selling a flex-fuel vehicle. (For instance, an E85 light duty truck that averages 13 mpg is currently credited with about a 23 mpg rating.) Although that law is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.


  • Anonymous

    “…very few people who own flex-fuel vehicles actually end up using the fuel. Just 2,500 of the 162,000 gas stations in the United States actually offer E85, which in most parts of the country offers little to no cost savings compared to standard gasoline.”

    this is exactly why e85 is green washing. ethanol itself is already questionable at best. just add lack of availability, low use and zero economic advantage, the e85 path is a virtual dead end.

  • Scott Z

    I also agree that E85 is not worth much but there is one aspect that I think is compelling about E85. If we are stuck with ICE autos for some time I would prefer my fuel not come from most of the countries that currently produce oil. I live in the DC area. I have never seen a E85 pump. I often look for them out of curiosity.

  • Charles

    No.

    No. No. No.

    E85 is a sham, and amounts to pouring food into a gas tank. The energy gain for fuel ethanol is a paltry 30%, requires petroleum to produce in the first place, and squanders arable land. There’s no way agriculture can provide the energy density needed to make any substantial dent in our oil dependence.

  • Anonymous

    Cannabis produces 10 times more ethanol than corn.
    If we go the E85 way, I see that logo changing ever so slightly in the future.

  • Indigo Halo

    Corn ethanol is a joke. It takes more fossil fuel to distill than it releases as a fuel. It drives up food prices worldwide. It drives up fuel prices worldwide. It costs the taxpayers a bundle, thanks to subsidies. All the ethanol program has done is allowed GM to drive Hummers through the CAFE loopholes and make the ADM executives rich.

  • Samie

    GM Calls E85 ‘Our Best Near-Term Solution’
    Above: “E85 light duty truck that averages 13 mpg is currently credited with about a 23 mpg rating.” That is a scam & it is about time this type of silly fudging of the numbers stop. Expect an energy bill loaded with loopholes in CAFE regulations, with legislation that gives massive ethanol subsides later this year or possibly Jan/Feb of next year.

    You try to love GM but they always seem to mess things up. Poor PR like normal. E85 is a political seller but the Volt and plug-in vehicles capture the curiosity and interest of the consumer. Stick with focusing on the consumer and building an image of being a leader. Sure it is in their interest to support E85 but they should consolidate that message only to the Michigan politicians that they have in their pockets.

  • M Weirick

    I think you have a unit error in your reporting. Ethanol production is about 800,000 barrels per day, not per year. Some ethanol plants in the Midwest produce in the range of 500,000 to 750,000 barrels per day.
    IIRC, 839,000 bpd works out to about 4-5% of total US liquid fuel consumption.

  • M Weirick

    Oops, looks like I made a unit error also. I should have said that some individual Midwest ethanol plants produce 500,000 to 750,000 barrels per YEAR of ethanol. Sorry.

  • TD

    Clearly what GM means is E85 is “GM’s Best Near-Term Solution” to evade CAFE standards.

  • zach

    You’re right. I’m going to use the number from the GM blog post, but I cited “year” instead of “day.” I’ll correct it.

  • Max Reid

    Already 84% of the gasolene in America is E10 which means some 8% of the light duty vehicles use Ethanol. E85 just adds to this. Soon we can see more E85 stations as the gas prices continue to increase.

    Biofuels produce some 2 million barrels / day worldwide and this helps maintain the price of oil, without this the oil prices could shoot past 100$ / barrel.

  • LRO Ent

    GM has long tried to get us to believe the “junk” ideas they publish, but, now that they are run by the Federal Government, they seem to be increasing their efforts to get us to buy their “snake oil”. Hey! that’s an idea, why don’t they produce an engine to run on snake oil; they certainly produce enough of that.

    The new GM lemon (the Volt) could make sense only if the country could begin building an atomic electrical energy infrastructure, sans Federal Government involvement, and interference. Doing so would result in clean, electrical energy that would be so cheap that we would consider it “free” compared to even present day gasoline prices. Of course, by then virtually every other auto manufacturer would have produced electric cars with capabilities far beyond what Government Motors would be capable of manufacturing.

  • Bruce

    GAG!

    First – The reason GM makes flex-fuel vehicles is NOT because it is the best ‘near term’ alternative fuel. It is because they get a TAX CREDIT on EVERY ONE they make!! It doesn’t matter that most of them will NEVER see a drop of E85. As the article said, it costs them NOTHING to make them E85 compatible, the alcohol sensitive parts are already redesigned.

    Second – As noted – DOUBLE CAFE! So a truck that gets CR@P MPG, makes their CAFE numbers look good due to a political gift.
    And WHY do they do this? Running E85 does NOT increase the MPG, it drops it by about 30% overall. Thus you use 30% MORE fuel and stop for it 30% more often. The CAFE rating should be DROPPED not doubled.

  • Kenz300

    E85 currently offsets 10% or more of the fuel going into gasoline. This means that we are buying less oil to
    fuel our vehicles and replacing it with ethanol. It also means that we are buying less oil from countries that want
    to do us harm. It keeps the price of oil down by reducing the demand for oil.

    Ethanol is an American fuel produced by Americans providing much needed American jobs. I would rather give my
    money to an American farmer than to some someone in the middle east that is not our friend. Second generation ethanol produced from cellulose, algae and waste at your local dump are moving into production and will soon be a bigger part of the mix. The military is on board and looking at biofuels as a way to reduce it’s fuel costs and secure it’s supply.

    The recoverable oil in the world is not limitless. As it gets harder to find and produce the price will continue to go up.
    As China and India with their billion plus populations acquire automobiles in greater numbers PEAK OIL theorists
    expect demand for oil to increase faster than supply increasing the price for all.

    The last time oil went to $147/barrel people were scrambling to get out of their trucks and SUV’s and were looking for small efficient foreign cars to drive. That was not good for GM since GM relied heavily on Truck and SUV’s for their sales.

    If the price of oil goes back up to $147/barrel in the next few years it will be nice to have an alternative choice at the pump. Gas stations need to become fueling stations and offer gasoline, ethanol, diesel, biodiesel, CNG and electric charging stations. Consumers needs a choice at the pump. Putting all your economic eggs in the oil basket may not be a good bet. Oil has had a monopoly in transportation fuels for too long. Until now we have been blessed with cheap fuel. From all that I read the era of cheap fuel is coming to an end.

    Our economic security and our national security demand that we diversify our energy sources so that the impact
    of high fuel prices on our economy can be reduced.

  • Kenz300

    E85 currently offsets 10% or more of the fuel going into gasoline. This means that we are buying less oil to
    fuel our vehicles and replacing it with ethanol. It also means that we are buying less oil from countries that want
    to do us harm. It keeps the price of oil down by reducing the demand for oil.

    Ethanol is an American fuel produced by Americans providing much needed American jobs. I would rather give my
    money to an American farmer than to some someone in the middle east that is not our friend. Second generation ethanol produced from cellulose, algae and waste at your local dump are moving into production and will soon be a bigger part of the mix. The military is on board and looking at biofuels as a way to reduce it’s fuel costs and secure it’s supply.

    The recoverable oil in the world is not limitless. As it gets harder to find and produce the price will continue to go up.
    As China and India with their billion plus populations acquire automobiles in greater numbers PEAK OIL theorists
    expect demand for oil to increase faster than supply increasing the price for all.

    The last time oil went to $147/barrel people were scrambling to get out of their trucks and SUV’s and were looking for small efficient foreign cars to drive. That was not good for GM since GM relied heavily on Truck and SUV’s for their sales.

    If the price of oil goes back up to $147/barrel in the next few years it will be nice to have an alternative choice at the pump. Gas stations need to become fueling stations and offer gasoline, ethanol, diesel, biodiesel, CNG and electric charging stations. Consumers needs a choice at the pump. Putting all your economic eggs in the oil basket may not be a good bet. Oil has had a monopoly in transportation fuels for too long. Until now we have been blessed with cheap fuel. From all that I read the era of cheap fuel is coming to an end.

    Our economic security and our national security demand that we diversify our energy sources so that the impact
    of high fuel prices on our economy can be reduced.

  • Anonymous

    You don’ t know what you are talking about

  • tapra1

    E85 isn’t in a position to immediately benefit from a spike in gas prices, and could be edged out by increased production of other alternatives should prices rise more gradually.Green News

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