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Ethanol Fuel Comes to Texas

No one drives more than Texans do. Our cities are huge and sprawling, with downtown business centers located huge distances from where people live in suburbs or exurbs. My observation on Dallas is that no matter where you live or where you are going it always takes 45 minutes to an hour to get there, and the same is true for most of the state. Here in Texas we literally live in our cars. I keep a laptop in my pickup because it’s easier to just sit in the truck and work for a few hours than to take the time to drive home to my office after having driven all the way into town. In fact, I’m parked at a McDonald’s using their wireless internet right now.

With the time we spend in our vehicles we like to get large and comfortable ones, like SUVs or fancy pickups or large luxury cars. Even with the new, higher fuel economy standards, they tend to guzzle gas, and at current prices that can be pretty painful. Plus, when you’re driving 2 to 3 hours a day, you start to feel guilty about all the pollutants your car is spewing out, no matter how warmly you feel about the Texas oil industry.

The answer to this is alternative fuels and higher fuel economy vehicles. Hybrid engines are the main answer to the fuel economy problem, but progress on hybrid trucks and SUVs has been painfully slow, and the selection remains limited to either very expensive foreign SUVs like the Toyota Highlander, cramped little SUVs like the Ford Escape or the idiotically designed line of GM hybrid pickups which get the same gas mileage as their non-hybrids.

None of these gets enough better gas mileage to justify the higher cost you pay for a hybrid over the life of the vehicle. To get decent return on your investment your hybrid really needs to be a compact or sub-compact car like the Prius, and no one wants to drive 3 hours a day scrunched up like a pretzel in one of those microscopic deathtraps.

The real answer is alternative fuels that pollute less and have a lower cost. One alternative fuel option is biodiesel. Any diesel vehicle will run on it, it produces almost no pollution, and if you shop around, it costs a little bit less than unleaded. The catch is that a diesel engine adds about $5000 to the cost of your vehicle, and there’s a pretty limited selection and it’s mostly large pickups. The only diesel SUVs are the tiny Jeep Liberty and the enormous, inefficient and overpriced Hummer. For most people the real alternative fuel option is a vehicle that will run on ethanol, or at least on E85 (85%) ethanol.

There are lots of ‘flex-fuel’ vehicles which will run on E85, likely including the car you already own, but people aren’t very aware of their existence. The real catch with E85 as an alternative fuel is that until recently there was nowhere between the Rockies and the Mississippi where you could buy E85. Even most of the states that grow the corn it’s made from had virtually no retail outlets for it.

Like biodiesel, which is becoming more available, it’s getting easier to find ethanol based fuel as well. We’re on the cusp of an alternative fuel breakthrough for these two fuels, which will run in vehicles that are already on the market and require no modifications. One of the main reasons for this is President Bush’s energy initiative, which includes substantial tax credits for production of both ethanol and biodiesel and also changed the national fuel standards to replace toxic MTBE which was added at 15% to all petroleum fuel with pure ethanol.

Starting about a month ago, all of the gas you buy is E15, which will run in any gas vehicle and reduces a lot of harmful emissions. The increase in ethanol production to meet the new requirements also means that higher mixes of ethanol like E85 are going to be more and more widely available for those who want to use them.

E85 does have a somewhat negative impact on gas mileage, but it also reduces emissions by about 40%. A modern engine produces very little pollution to start with, and if you run it on E85, it produces almost none. Biodiesel is still probably slightly better for fuel economy and low emissions, but it’s a close race. The really good news with E85 is that because of the tax break and relatively low production costs of ethanol it’s likely to be priced at least 30 cents a gallon less than unleaded in the same market, a price break which biodiesel won’t be able to match until production increases substantially, and a market force which may lead to an explosion of consumer interest in E85.

The first sign of the coming ethanol boom here in Texas – always the bellwether for fuel trends – is the entry of the H.E.B. chain of grocery stores into the market. H.E.B. owns a number of gas stations around the state. Starting this summer they plan to offer E85 at five of their stations located along the Interstate 35 corridor. H.E.B. has a reputation for innovative marketing, and this may be a pretty clever move for them.

With a company as mainstream as H.E.B. embracing ethanol fuel it’s reasonable to expect others to follow in their footsteps. Biodiesel is already expanding around the state, and the market for E85 is much larger, so if the marketplace works its usual magic, the combination of lower price and cleaner output ought to create a customer base and other fuel retailers should follow H.E.B. in anticipating or eventually responding to demand.

Availability is the last barrier for alternative fuels. The vehicles have been here for years and now the fuel is going to be available as well. Too many people think of hydrogen or some other inconvenient, hypothetical or high-tech option when they think about alternative fuels. You don’t need to modify your vehicle or wait for new technology. Alternative fuels are here now and they’re cheaper and cleaner than petroleum. All you have to do is start using them.

About Dave Nalle

  • Lumpy

    Are there any cars that can run on 100 percent ethanol right off the assembly line?

  • http://insiderealestatejournal.blogspot.com Mr. Real Estate

    I’m seriously considering buying the new Camry Hybrid. Ethanol and hybrids are definitely the way to go.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    If you want an Ethanol Hybrid hold out a bit longer for the Saab which is going to run on E100 with a hybrid engine. It sounds phenomenal.

    And as for cars that can currently run on E100, I’d recommend a Model T Ford if you can find one that hasn’t been converted for petroleum. But seriously, it may be possible to run FlexFuel vehicles on up to E95 and the manufacturers just aren’t admitting it. But don’t take my word for it and try it. Do some research. There are message bases with discussions from people who’ve done this sort of experimenting.

    Dave

  • Bliffle

    “And as for cars that can currently run on E100, I’d recommend a Model T Ford if you can find one that hasn’t been converted for petroleum.”

    IIRC, all early Fords were designed to run either alcohol or petrol: a lever on the carb switched between the two. Alcohol was used for most early cars because it was cheap and easily available in most communities without shipping. The “octane” rating is based on alcohol as octane 100. The switch to petrol occured because it was cheaper, in spite of the greater hazard of fires and explosions.

    Back in the 60s sports car racers of my acquaintance lobbied to get the SCCA to switch to alcohol for closed course ‘modified’ race cars to reduce the danger of being burned badly in a crash. I believe that the Indy 500 is run on alcohol (tho NASCAR is still gasoline), in spite of my local newspaper reporting once that a car powered by alcohol couldn’t go over 60 MPH.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    “Are there any cars that can run on 100 percent ethanol right off the assembly line?”

    I can’t answer that for certain, but my tentative guess is no. The reason they call it E85 is that it’s 85% ethanol, and 15% gasoline. And this isn’t some random percentage pulled out of some scientist’s ass. Anything less than 15% gasoline runs the serious risk of causing problems for driver…like not starting on cold days, and not starting after a few days of being idle.

    So, 100% ethanol is probably not the way to go at this point…but maybe in a few years!

  • JR

    Bliffle: I believe that the Indy 500 is run on alcohol

    The alcohol used in Champ Car and (I think) the Indy Racing League is methanol.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    The two problems with E100 are the cold weather issue mentioned earlier – which is also an issue with Biodiesel – and the volatility of the fuel. The more Ethanol in your mix, the harder it is on the engine and the better designed and ‘tighter’ an engine it requires. Ethanol burns faster and produces more power than petroleum does and not all engines are up to the additional stress.

    I don’t know if the cold weather starting issues can be addressed with an engine warmer as they are in diesel engines. I plan to find out more about this new Saab which has apparently solved all these problems.

    Dave

  • Bliffle

    Methanol (methyl alcohol), sometimes called “wood alcohol” is a suboptimal fuel because of it’s corrosive effect. Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) “grain alcohol” is more benign. It used to be that Methanol was cheaper and easier to produce, thus making it more desirable, but I’m not sure of relative costs now.

  • Dave Nalle

    There’s some concern over corosive effects of Ethanol too, but mainly because of the small amount of water which it contains. MTBE which was just eliminated from gas nationwide and replaced with ethanol was a methanol derivative.

    BTW, methanol is also the key chemical used in processing biodiesel.

    Dave

  • http://e85vehicles.com/converting-e85.htm Dan

    Very nice to see even in the Great Oil State of Texas ..E85 making it’s way.

    E100 ..yes the biggest problems would be cold start .. some people use a “pre-heater” heating the fuel for better cold start..not something I’d recommend !

    E85 Conversion.. extremly simple ..

  • http://www.co2emissions.org.uk Hoggle

    Saab E100 Concept Car

    Saab E100 Hybrid Car prototype

    Of course, the long-term solution is to design our lives to need less travel, with compact villages containing all our daily needs, work-from-home, and cheap, clean mass-transit to and from retail and commerce centres.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Thanks for the links, Hoggle. But your suggestion of redesigning everything so we live more compactly seems to be the opposite of what’s happening here in Texas where the exurb phenomenon with ever longer commutes seems to be the trend. Rather than more urbanization I suspect that virtual offices with people working from home are a more likely solution.

    Dave

  • B

    Pssst… The Prius is classified as a mid-sized sedan, not a compact or sub-compact vehicle. If you’re going to write, fine. Just get your facts in order beforehand!

  • Lumpy

    What kind of retard classified the prius as a midsize? Does that mean my blazer is a 18-wheeler?

  • http://absent-mind.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    No, maybe they classified the V W beetle as an SUV so it’d qualify for lower MPGs?

  • Joey

    Indy is shifting to eth in 2007. They blended this year with meth.

    Hybrids: Big dollar battery-bank change out at year 3 or 4. And your type of driving plays into the purchase decision. If you are doing a lot of city driving, you would very rarely kick into the electric mode. That mostly occurs at highway speeds.

    Eth: Why denature it? Is the denatured product causing the cold starting problems. or… employ turbine technology. It will burn it, no problem.

    Japanese Imperial Air Force: Flew the Mitsubishi Zero on distilled pine sap, exclusively. This was, of course after the U.S. had effectively stopped imports (oil) from arriving back into Japan.

    Japanese Imperial Navy: Ran their ships (boilers) on straight crude oil. That’s why they turned into inferno’s when torpedoed. Crude has a lot of other ingredients besides the slippery stuff. Things like Methane, natural gas, varnishes etc… creating a much more volitile mix. But the Japanese figured it was cheaper to NOT refine the fuel, and burn it straight from the well.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Joey, your last post reminds me of how many things we’ve used as fuel in the past and senselessly abandonned. Hell, you could still build a car that ran on wooden logs AKA ‘biomass’ if you wanted to, like the old Stanley Steamer.

    Your turbine point is also a good one. That’s what makes biodiesel viable, and my reading suggests that E100 will work beautifully in an engine which uses a turbine and pressure induced ignition.

    Dave

  • Joey

    Dave,

    I had no idea the Model T was capable of burning alcohol. That’s a great idea, at a time when petroleum wasn’t always available. I understand the old Army duece and a half was multi-fuel capable.

    Is bio-diesel a soy product? Then of course along comes the recycled restaurant grease. But that would be a limited resource available only to those who are set up to scavange, and after it caught on, the source would probably be sold, not given away.

    Google Hydrogen economy sometime. It’s amazing what is starting. However, from what I have read, a fully capable hydrogen economy and associated infrastructure is at least 50 years out.

    I remember reading about a pig farmer, who harvested the methane created by his stock to power the farm, including the equipment. That was amazing.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I had no idea the Model T was capable of burning alcohol. That’s a great idea, at a time when petroleum wasn’t always available. I understand the old Army duece and a half was multi-fuel capable.

    So is the HMV. In fact the next generation has a multi-fuel hybrid enging.

    Is bio-diesel a soy product? Then of course along comes the recycled restaurant grease. But that would be a limited resource available only to those who are set up to scavange, and after it caught on, the source would probably be sold, not given away.

    Soy is one of the cheaper sources for biodiesel, but you can use whatever vegetable oil is available. I’ve even heard of people using lard, though I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Google Hydrogen economy sometime. It’s amazing what is starting. However, from what I have read, a fully capable hydrogen economy and associated infrastructure is at least 50 years out.

    That’s why I’m focusing on options available now.

    I remember reading about a pig farmer, who harvested the methane created by his stock to power the farm, including the equipment. That was amazing.

    Sounds like a truly unpleasant way to power your farm.

    Dave

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    If you farm hogs (or most any other livestock), methane’s already there as one of your inevitable by-products. Capturing at least some of it and getting power from it sounds more pleasant than just letting it all perfume the air for miles around.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I guess you have a point there, Victor. But I still don’t want to be the one hooking hoses up to pigs buttholes.

    Dave

  • Bliffle

    “If you farm hogs (or most any other livestock), methane’s already there as one of your inevitable by-products. Capturing at least some of it and getting power from it sounds more pleasant than just letting it all perfume the air for miles around.”

    After WW2 Europe had little petrol, so people improvised fuel from, among other things, methane. The magazine “Popular Mechanics” had illustrated articles detailing how to convert a small engine to use farm gases. One could see pictures of small vehicles powered by the huge gas bag it towed on a small trailer.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    this discussion is conjuring up some truly weird mental imagery.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    of course! i shoulda said weird and funny.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Methane isn’t harvested from livestock anatomy. Despite Dave’s vivid imagery, I’ve never heard of anyone hooking hoses to hogs.

    In gaseous form the methane might be extracted from the air in the animal enclosures (especially if they are in fully enclosed barns), but I don’t think that’s done very often either, if at all. So in reality, methane power is not really power from farts. That level of efficiency might be possible at some point, but I don’t think anybody’s quite that desperate yet.

    The most common way to collect methane from a livestock facility is to change the process for handling their manure and other waste products such as uneaten feed materials. These waste products have to be handled somehow, so it makes sense to handle them in ways that will let you collect the methane they tend to generate as they decompose.

    Another alternative is to arrange for the waste to decompose without generating any methane, but that’s a whole different can of worms (sometimes literally) and the end product in such cases usually has nothing to do with energy production, so it’s a bit off-topic for this article.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    But wouldn’t it be more efficient to syphon it directly out of animal sphincters? I’m sure the technology is feasible.

    There’s actuallly an awful lot of methane gas out there that goes to waste. I remember in high school a schoolmate (whose father was a notable senator) lighting his farts on fire and producing a prolonged blue flame about 2 feet in length.

    But on a more serious note, I’ve noticed that our local landfill vents methane gas from their underground piles of garbage and burns it at the top of the vents. If they capped those vents and stored the gas it could likely be used to fuel their garbage trucks.

    We need to think about things like that.

    Dave

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Methane comes from microbes inside the animal, which is a pretty good environment for those microbes, but not their ideal environment because the animal’s digestive system is also trying to do a lot of other stuff related to keeping the animal alive.

    This makes methane production inside the animal highly variable. In fact, the highest methane production occurs when the animal’s digestive system is not working properly. (That’s why we get bloated when we eat things we can’t easily digest, like undercooked beans.)

    People who want a reliable methane source will take the animal waste products and put them into a bioreactor or digester designed to make the methane-producing microbes as happy as possible, which is much easier to build when you take out all that tedious effort of keeping larger livestock alive and healthy.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Landfill methane tapping is only the first stage of landfill mining. The total volume of methane bubbling up in landfills might be enough to power the garbage trucks, maybe. It probably isn’t enough to do much more than that.

    Beyond that, it will be harder to capture the methane once people start mining the landfills, after we reach the point where they are effectively the richest veins of usable ore to be found anywhere near the planet’s surface.

    Hopefully, by the time that is happening on a regular basis, we’ll be getting enough energy from more reliable systems, generated from sources such as high-efficiency solar cells. If we can manage that, we will not need the landfill methane as anything more than a transitional stopgap.

  • Dave Nalle

    Just seems like a shame to me to burn off all that methane as they are doing now when they could put it to some sort of use.

    Dave

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    the town i used to live in heated and powered all the equipment in the recycling center from the landfill methane.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    I agree, Dave. I’d like the methane put to good use.

    I hear it’s great rocket fuel.

  • Joey

    I can see it now:

    “I AM THE MAYOR OF BARTER TOWN!”

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Good lord, isn’t that a Mad Max reference of some sort?

    Dave

  • Joey

    Yes, I admit I saw the movie… remember the underground methane production facilty, it was run by the swineman.

  • http://www.hobbyfanatic.com Gene Matocha

    Joey: You’re off base with the comment about Hybrids. City driving is where the electric motor is used the most; it primarily provides an acceleration boost which is the most inefficient “mode” of an ICE. Current hybrids don’t have large enough batteries to provide extended use on the highways.

    Dave:
    Great post. Thanks. I take some issue with your dislike for small cars, but that’s subjective. ;)
    Also, please help spread the word that “polution” as defined by the EPA does NOT INCLUDE GREEN HOUSE GAS EMISSIONS (C02)!

    You make the comment that “A modern engine produces very little pollution to start with, and if you run it on E85, it produces almost none.”

    Unfortunatley most people today would read that and think that applied to greenhouse gasses as well. It doesn not.

    It only applies to NOX and other particulate emissions (“polution” as defined by the EPA/DOT) but NOT to C02. Currently all the “alternative” fuels produce roughly the same C02 emissions as gasoline. The only way to significantly reduce C02 emissions from ICEs is to improve efficiency (MPG)…changing fuels won’t get you there.

    Most people are are not aware that for every gallon of gasoline consumed, 20 POUNDS of C02 are produced. This sounds impossible as a gallon of gas only weighs ~7lbs, but once you realize that the atomic weight of carbon is 6 and oxygen is 8, and that those two O atoms come from the atmosphere, it becomes obvious.

    To visualualize this, a 20lb tank of C02 is about the size of a scuba tank. So however many gallons your gas tank holds, in a very real sense, you’re releasing that number of scuba tanks worth of C02 into the atmosphere. Imagine 15 or 20 scuba tanks in the back of your truck and opening them one by one as you drive down the road. Then reloading once a week when you refill your tank.

    That said, I am very much in favor of gas “alternatives” and am going off to find an HEB near me. I think incremental steps are necessary and beneficial. But don’t think it’s an environmental silver bullet.

    Thanks!

  • http://n/a Phil

    I read an article in Mother Earth News long time ago about a Pig Farmer that got a railroad tank car- cut the end out and buried it verticilly(?) filled it with pig dropings and water then placed another caped cylinder inside ( close tolarence) so the gas would build up inside it. As the gas was produced it raised the inside cylinder and pressurized the gas by the weight of the cylindeer. He piped it to his house for cooking and heating etc. Pumped it to cylinders for storage and also ran his equipement on the botteled gas.. Pumped out the old material, pumped in the new, keep on keeping on.. That’s my lie and I’m sticking with it……… LOL

  • Jamie Waldron

    Hi all,

    I have heard two competing theories about the Greenhouse effect and the solar cycle and would like to postulate a variant of my own.
    The first theory is the one of which everyone has heard. That is that the one that doesn’t take into account the solar cycle at all and supposes that all of the global warming to date is due to our emitting greenhouse gasses and the erosion of the Ozone layer due to our hydrocarbon emissions.
    The competing theory brings to the table evidence to support the theory that our sun is presently in a state where the amount of solar radiation hitting the earth’s atmosphere is significantly lessened and that the earth would be in a mini-ice-age without our current greenhouse gas production. This theory, based on mapping of the solar cycles, also accounts for the last ice-age along with the 250 to 350 year cooling cycle during the medieval times. There is some contention amongst historians about the actual dates involved but most agree that it started some time in the 16th century (1500′s) and ended in the 19th century (1800′s).
    What I would like to postulate is that humanity in all its inherent vanity has once again overestimated its part. Regardless of whether you follow the belief of creation or evolution, it is a given that the earth existed before humanity and will most-likely exist after we’re nothing more than ruins and memory. The sun has existed for even longer. I would tend to believe that our greenhouse gas emissions have a much smaller effect upon global warming than the solar output does.
    I am not saying that we shouldn’t do something about it before it gets out-of-hand; but I am saying that our point-of-focus shouldn’t be whether or not we “save the earth.” The worst we’ll ever achieve is to make the earth uninhabitable for humans. We’d be hard-pressed to even wipe out all life on earth; much less destroy the earth and I think a campaign that states the truth would get through to a larger percentage of the self-serving species known and Homo-Sapiens. Rather than “Save the Earth,” shouldn’t we be crying “Save Humanity, save your Children and save Money while you’re at it?” I think that’d be a good slogan for E85.

    Regards,

    Jamie Waldron

  • HenryC

    10% ethanol has been in general use for many years; and is now pretty much the standard fuel that is sold all over the US.

    Mr. Real Estate, perhaps you can use this fuel for your Camry Hybrid.

    I also got one from Texas. There are some great dealers in there. They’ll welcome you in and help you get what you need. No matter what you would like, they will get it for you. I wanted a dependable car with the Toyota Camry. I do not have to be concerned about any issues with it breaking down on me. Texas dealerships gave me what I wanted. They helped me the get the Camry exactly the way I imagined it would be. It shouldn’t be hard to find dealerships near you.

  • Igor

    HenryC: I think that Mr. Real Estate died.

    Are you any relation to HenryJ?

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    How would you know that, Igor? Thought you were a recent visitor to the site.

  • Igor

    Probably something I saw when I tried the “Search” option, which seems to produce colorful results.