Flex fuel sounds plain cool. It's fuel and it's flexible - who wouldn't be impressed with something that's both vital and accommodating at the same time? Only hippies and professional haters, right?
As an energy source, flex fuel is by definition a mixture of ethanol and gasoline used in vehicles specifically modified/designed to accept it. And it can be any
mixture; 99 percent ethanol and 1 percent gasoline; 1 percent ethanol and 99 percent gasoline or any percent variation in between.
Flex-fuel vehicles, meanwhile, have received a lot of attention from automakers as of late - mostly the US-based ones. The E85 flex fuel - a blend that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline - is widely touted as new alternative-energy genius. Problem is, it's hardly new. The first commercial flex-fuel vehicle ever to hit the US market was - get this - the Model T Ford.
So after more the a hundred years of "market testing," shall we say, US auto makers are comfortable enough with the idea to seriously promote it.
There may be other reasons for the recent groundswell of support for E85 and the flex-fuel vehicles that burn it - though various arguments about its true viability persist. Is E85 the greatest alternative energy idea to come along since the invention of the sun, or the most dastardly plot imposed on the public since Soylent Green? Obviously it has to be one or the other, because shades of gray are boring.
Let's look at the pro side first. E85 advocates say:
+ It burns cleaner than gasoline: its emissions of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are lower than conventional gasoline- or diesel-burning engines.
+ Ethanol, unlike some other liquids we could mention, is non-toxic, water-soluble, and biodegradable.
+Blending gasoline with ethanol stretches the world's oil supply, and we are going to run out someday, as you'd know if you loved the earth like us.
+ It reduces our dependence on foreign oil.
+ It's a solutions that's ready now. There may be other and better solutions out there, but until they're ready for mass commercial use, we can at least reduce our oil consumption.
+ Did we mention it reduces our dependence on foreign oil?
Minute's up, E85 promoters. Hippies and haters - er, E85 critics - what have you got?
- Ethanol may burn cleaner than gasoline with regard to carbon monoxide and dioxide, but it burns much dirtier with regard to other, smog-causing chemicals.
- It requires large amounts of fossil fuels to produce ethanol - as well as large amounts of land that would otherwise be used for producing food. This, as well as the diversion of corn from the world market, drives up the price of food worldwide and may actually increase our dependence on foreign oil.
- We have a study saying that ethanol uses more energy to produce than it saves when it's used. We know you have a study saying the opposite, but we think your study stinks and ours is awesome. Plus, some ethanol plants have started using coal as their primary source instead of natural gas, which definitely puts ethanol in the minus column as an environmental solution.
- E85 actually reduces fuel economy - you get on average 25 percent fewer miles to the gallon when driving with E85 than with pure gasoline.
- It may be true that this is a solution that's ready now, but if we allow E85 and other ethanol-based solutions to take the place of better solutions, it will be much harder to reach those better solutions.
Hmm. Not bad, hippies. E85 boosters, 30 seconds to rebut.
+ E85 may produce lower fuel economy, but it's made up for by the reductions in harmful emissions. We have a study showing that. And before you start…
+ Our study is definitely better than yours. Our study rules and yours drools. We're working on that catchphrase.
+ We're also working on the whole taking food off the market thing. And the coal thing. Look, we're working on it, okay? Are you saying we should just do nothing while the world runs out of oil because our solutions aren't perfect?
+ We may not have made ourselves clear earlier about reducing dependence on foreign oil. Did we say... oh, we did. Fine, so you know about that, then. It's possible (make that probable) that some nuance or subtlety was harmed in the making of those bullet lists, but that's the general idea. So if we aren't going to solve the scientific and policy debate right here, what else is there to say about it?
Just one thing more. The US auto industry has pushed hard
to promote ethanol-based solutions to alternative energy problems.
As it happens, the latest version of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, and the version before that, both contain specific provisions detailing what kind of credit automakers get for producing flex-fuel vehicles - provisions that US automakers lobbied hard to get. So the automakers really, really want ethanol- and flex-fuel-based solutions to be part of public policy.
That fact alone should ring a few alarm bells. Because as has been pointed out in this space before - sing it with me if you know the words - people respond to incentives.
Second verse: auto companies, whatever you may have heard, are run by people.
Why should the automakers be so eager to have ethanol included in the list of alternative fuels they can get credit for? Two reasons, one old and one new.
Firstly, in the earlier version of CAFE, automakers were given credit for all potential fuel savings that could
come from using a flex-fuel engine whether the users of that car actually put E85, or any sort of ethanol blend, in it. So they make the relatively small investment in modifying a gasoline engine to accept flex-fuel, calculate that the "new" engine could now produce X amount of emissions reduction if used with E85 all the time for all its life and thus receive a credit good for X emissions reduction.
Well, that's fair, you might say. It's not the automakers' fault if the driving public doesn't actually put flex fuel in their flex fuel vehicles, is it?
It might not be, except for two things:
(1) Only 2,749 gas stations, of the nation's roughly 180,000 gas stations, carry E85 or any version of it, and the auto industry has done little or nothing to expand this infrastructure;
(2) Though this is changing to some extent, for most of the time that US automakers have been making flex-fuel vehicles, they have concealed this fact from the buyers, concerned that it might deter consumer acceptance. A 2005 survey of flex-fuel car owners in the US found that 68 percent of them were unaware that they owned a flex-fuel car.
So: the automakers found a loophole in CAFE and exploited it. We can hardly blame them; incentives and all that, you know. The loophole has been closed now, however, so why are US automakers still so in love with E85?
They said it themselves (well, I put the words in their mouth, but they do say it): it's here now. That is, it's a solution that they can cheaply put in place, they already know how to do it, and they can claim to be meeting CAFE standards and pursuing alternative-energy goals if they embrace E85. But at the same time, the advantage would be to not
pursue (and perhaps even actively discourage the pursuit of) more technologically advanced, better
They say ethanol-based solutions are only until something better comes along. But have you ever seen a for-profit company work toward finding a way to do something that's harder, more expensive, and better than what they're currently doing?
Yes, you have. But only when public policy is crafted so that they have
to - or that there are good incentives to. If we want auto companies to pursue real solutions, we have to give them a reason to pursue them. Right now, at least, it looks like ethanol is a good reason not to pursue them.
It might be time to take it off the table.
[Flex Fuel logo courtesy of Ford