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.