The Upside of Ethanol

Proponents of ethanol emphasize its environmental and energy security benefits.

  • Ethanol is a renewable fuel that comes from agricultural feedstocks, and thus can be produced domestically.

Using ethanol (particularly E85) also results in less pollution, reducing smog-forming emissions by as much as 50 percent relative to gasoline. E85-powered vehicles also contribute to global warming, although experts disagree about just how much greenhouse gas is emitted by using ethanol.

One might expect that by using E85, net carbon dioxide emissions would be almost zero. The crops used to make the ethanol absorb CO2 from the atmosphere during their growth, then this CO2 is put back into the atmosphere when the ethanol is burned in an automobile engine. In reality, this cycle is overly simplistic because it fails to recognize other greenhouse gas emissions that occur during the cultivation and production of ethanol. Modern farming, for example, relies heavily on diesel-powered equipment that emits greenhouse gases. Distilling ethanol is also an energy-intensive process that often uses electricity generated from coal, another source of greenhouse emissions.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley recently examined six major studies of ethanol production and concluded that using ethanol made from corn instead of gasoline would lead to a moderate 13 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions. However, the researchers note that more dramatic reductions are possible if technology advances make it economical to make ethanol from cellulosic materials such as switchgrass, a crop currently grown by some U.S. farmers to control erosion on idle fields. Using cellulosic ethanol, they project, could result in 88 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

The UC Berkeley study also contradicts a common criticism of ethanol: that it takes more energy to produce it than it delivers as a motor fuel. The study concludes that ethanol made from corn does indeed have a positive “net energy balance,” particularly if you consider that other valuable products, such as corn oil, are byproducts of the ethanol-making process.

The Downside

E85 may be better for the environment and the American farmer, but it has some drawbacks.

  • The first is price: ethanol can be more expensive than gasoline, depending on where you live.
    Data on fuel prices from the DOE shows that in the Midwest (where much of the country’s ethanol is produced) E85 sells for nearly 30 cents less per gallon than conventional gasoline. However, on the West Coast, filling up with ethanol would cost a driver 35 cents more per gallon. In the mid-Atlantic states, E85 had an even higher premium: 44 cents per gallon.

  • The higher price of E85 in many areas is made worse by ethanol’s second drawback: ethanol, regardless of the price you pay for it, contains less energy than gasoline. This means that your car won’t go as far on a gallon of E85, and your fuel economy will decrease by 20-30 percent. This is bad news for consumers because even if the price of E85 at the pump is cheaper than gasoline, using ethanol may not be less expensive in the end.

Let’s consider one example. The most fuel-efficient flexible-fuel vehicle available this year is the Chevrolet Impala. Using gasoline, it is rated at 21 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. By using E85, rated mileage drops to 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.

If you fill-up the Impala’s 17-gallon tank at a station in the Midwest, you’ll save $5.10 by using E85. So far, so good. However, you can’t drive as far on E85 and will have to refuel sooner than if you had purchased conventional gasoline. In fact, your cost per mile is higher using E85: 9.7 cents/mile vs. 8.4 cents/mile for regular gas.

A 1.3 cent per mile difference may not seem like much, but over the course of a year’s driving it adds almost $200 to your fuel costs.

  • Another issue is that E85 is widely available only in the Midwest. The DOE lists nearly 2,000 E85 stations in the United States, but most of those are in two states: Minnesota and Illinois. Other areas, even populous ones, have little E85 infrastructure. For example, New York, California and Florida have just 20 E85 stations combined. (The situation is getting better; South Carolina and Texas now boast 40 and 22 E85 stations, respectively.)

To put things in perspective, there are more than 150,000 stations nationwide selling gasoline. While all of them may not need to offer E85, it is clear that wider distribution is needed before E85 can begin to displace gasoline sales.