UAI asks Forbes to set the record straight on benefits of ethanol

The recent article, “Why Are We Growing Corn To Fuel Our Cars? Three Reasons Why Ethanol Is A Bad Idea” continues the disturbing trend by Forbes to perpetuate myths and misinformation regarding what is clearly a cleaner and lower carbon fuel than gasoline.

Given space limitations I can only address some of the most blatant errors in this piece, beginning with the issue of energy efficiency. Yes, ethanol has 32% less energy per gallon compared to gasoline, although that is a misdirected argument if the objective is to replace gasoline and the carbon it emits. The key is that ethanol has 35% less carbon per gallon. Today 95%of regular gasoline has 10 percent ethanol while E85 averages around 75% ethanol and 25% gasoline. This means the average energy difference between regular and E85 is about 24 percent. I can cite multiple automotive studies that show ethanol burns more efficient than gasoline. A 2011 report by Rochester Institute of Technology reported that over a year of data collection from 27 vehicles operating on E85 averaged only 14% mileage loss. The City of Chicago averaged 16% and that included a lot of idling time.

The author cites data from one vehicle that only tested one tank of fuel without vehicle computer data to support equal driving conditions. Yet real world driving of millions of miles supports ethanol at all levels as an efficient fuel that is lower on a cost per mile basis, meaning energy content and BTUs are only a small part of the story.

Concerns of engine and material damage are also completely unfounded as we are learning that the toxic aromatics like benzene and toluene in gasoline — which average 25% volume– are the real culprits in damaging vehicle fuel systems. These compounds are used for octane and are the most carbon intensive components of gasoline.

As for the Holy Grail to reduce carbon emissions, the carbon in ethanol was just in the atmosphere within the past 12 months. So yes, it should be considered carbon neutral. All aspects of growing and transporting corn totransporting ethanol are accounted for in the GREET model. This is regarded as the gold standard of measuring sticks in the academic and scientific world and Mr. Searchinger simply chooses to ignore this contemporary, peer reviewed data. It should also be noted that Mr. Searchinger doesn’t give credit to the protein that is also produced at an ethanol refinery. Half the feeding value remains after converting the starch and helps put those eggs, dairy products and meat in your local grocery store. Oil refineries don’t produce food now do they?

It is also coming to light that a corn plant can sequester as much carbon in the ground as any prairie grass. Today it is being reported that one acre of corn on average puts roughly one ton of carbon into the ground. This really counters the indirect land use issue and even states like California are rethinking the way they have assessed corn ethanol in the past.

And finally, everything about the GHG goal of 54 mpg is about carbon. Even electric cars are rated on an energy equivalency basis. If E85 is only losing 16% mileage with E85 in the tank compared to gasoline, it still has 24% less energy and 27% less carbon in the tank. That means today’s FFVs can reduce carbon by 10 percent and they are not even optimized for octane.

Octane is the key enabler for higher mileage today. There are dozens upon dozens of technical reports and validation from the auto industry that need high octane fuels to achieve efficiency. The U.S. Department of Energy and their national laboratories have been working on these issues in an effort to identify a feasible pathway to octane and low carbon in balance with cost, health impacts, and consumer acceptance. Their conclusion is that 30% ethanol may be the optimum blending level. Ethanol is simply added to E10 and meets all performance and emission standards. But, it would allow higher efficiency and mean that an additional 10 percent carbon reduction could be achieved, providing a huge benefit to the auto industry as they struggle to meet increasingly more stringent standards.

Tens of thousands of consumer have used E20 and E30 over the past five years. They have experienced little or no mileage loss, with many having gains since these are premium octane fuels. Octane does matter in today’s modern vehicles. A recent study by the Big 3 reported 1 to 7 percent mileage benefit using premium octane depending on driving condition and vehicle calibration.

Ethanol has twice the octane value of any gasoline component and it is one of the cleanest options we have today at substantially lower cost. Lowering emissions with a cheaper, cleaner fuel certainly sounds like a great idea to me.

Steve Vander Griend
UAI Technical Director