Enthusiasm for flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) began to grow last year — around the same time people started to get excited about plug-in hybrids. We and others had been making the case that powering local miles with electricity gets you 100+MPG (of gasoline, then electricity). And we were happy to agree that evolving the "range extension" fuel to E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) could get us 500 MPG (of gasoline, plus electricity, plus ethanol) cars. Of course, we were looking ahead to cellulosic ethanol that would be a major environmental and efficiency win over today’s ethanol.

However, car-makers picked up only on the "ethanol-now" idea. They hoped that “doing their part" by building more FFVs might let them off the fuel efficiency hook — after all, it’s not their fault there are only a few hundred fueling stations. And they hoped for kudos for investing in the booming ethanol business. As a bonus, they’d continue to get fleet efficiency credits for FFVs most people can’t use. (Despite the loophole and the free pass, because cars stay on the roads a long time, we still think all cars built from now on should be flex-fuel-capable.)

Compare this to the case for plugging in: no new infrastructure needed, available technology, abundant nighttime electricity. It’s also the only way to reduce the amount of ethanol needed to fuel the US passenger fleet from 140 billion gallons/year to 40 billion — unless we envision everyone pledging to cut their yearly driving to 3,000 miles. (See our 120V+E85 handout.)

The case for ethanol as a near-term solution is also flawed because today’s US ethanol comes from corn. Agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (and presidential candidates whose careers are made and broken in Iowa’s cornfields) shape US agricultural policies. Now they are effectively partners with auto-makers on the ethanol bandwagon. Ethanol gets subsidies at the cornfield plus 51 cents/gallon at the pump. And it benefits from tariff walls against imported ethanol from sugar. (Sugar is far more efficient than corn in producing ethanol, but there is currently no significant sugar-to-ethanol industry in the US, though companies like Altra plan to do so in places like California’s economically-underdeveloped Inland Empire.) See the reports of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and discussions at Green Car Congress.

If you want to learn the whole extraordinary story of corn’s role in the economy, I can’t recommend highly enough the first 100 pages of Michael Pollan’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," which traces the plant’s evolution from rotating field crop to industrial product that lies at the heart of what is literally a sickening economy, where natural renewable systems are converted into unmanageable global pollution and health problems. This book joins Lester Brown’s "Plan B," William McDonough’s "Cradle to Cradle" and the new #1 paperback best-seller, Al Gore’s "Inconvenient Truth" on my must-read list.

Most importantly, the original expectation we’d use a fuel from renewable sources — cellulosic ethanol from waste products — has been eclipsed in the rush to build up corn and sugar ethanol. For more about cellulosic ethanol, see the NRDC report, "Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America’s Oil Dependence" and the presentations at venture investor Vinod Khosla’s website.

The visionary Lester Brown has been one of the most powerful voices making the case that we’re on a perilous path if we build out the market for food-based ethanol. See our CalCars-News Archive reprint of his forceful opinion piece from this week’s Fortune Magazine, and excerpts from his enlightening talk on NPR Science Friday.

A few quick excerpts from "Ethanol Could Leave the World Hungry:"

The growing myth that corn is a cure-all for our energy woes is leading us toward a potentially dangerous global fight for food.

We are facing an epic competition between the 800 million motorists who want to protect their mobility and the two billion poorest people in the world who simply want to survive. In effect, supermarkets and service stations are now competing for the same resources.

Already commodity prices are rising. Sugar prices have doubled over the past 18 months (driven in part by Brazil’s use of sugar cane for fuel), and world corn and wheat prices are up one-fourth so far this year.

Once stimulated solely by government subsidies, biofuel production is now being driven largely by the runaway price of oil. Many food commodities, including corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and sugar cane, can be converted into fuel; thus the food and energy economies are beginning to merge.

There are truly guilt-free alternatives to using food-based fuels. The equivalent of the 3% of U.S. automotive fuel supplies coming from ethanol could be achieved several times over – and at a fraction of the cost – by raising auto fuel-efficiency standards by 20%. (Unfortunately Detroit has resisted this, preferring to produce flex-fuel vehicles that will burn either gasoline or ethanol.)

Or what if we shifted to gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars over the next decade, powering short-distance driving, such as the daily commute or grocery shopping, with electricity?

By investing not in hundreds of wind farms, as we now are, but rather in thousands of them to feed cheap electricity into the grid, the U.S. could have cars running primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

Clearly, solutions exist. The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging food-fuel battle. As the world’s leading grain producer and exporter, as well as its largest producer of ethanol, the U.S. is in the driver’s seat.

Felix is an entrepreneur with a life-long green streak. He enjoys communicating his enthusiasm about what is new, unique, and significant. He is the founder of CalCars.org, The California Cars Initiative, and has been promoting 100+ MPG plug-in hybrids full-time since 2001. He posts his own selection of significant developments for PHEVs at the CalCars News Archive. His first entry at Hybrid Cars, Car Owners Strap into the Drivers Seat, in August 2005, expressed his view that the industrial world is in the midst of a major change — hopefully, it is not too late!