Repeat after me….High Octane, Low Carbon

by Dave Vander Griend, President of Urban Air Initiative

The signs are everywhere highlighting our product and how it can find its true value as an octane enhancer while also lowering carbon emissions.

Using our research at the Urban Air Initiative and in conjunction with our industry trade groups, we have been banging on the EPA’s door for years to recognize that octane matters. It matters in terms of emissions, performance, fuel economy, and cost. And now, with a global emphasis on lowering CO2 and greenhouse gases, octane matters quite a bit when it comes to reducing carbon. This is not an incidental value, or a throw-in to ethanol’s portfolio.  It needs to be a core component of our value proposition going forward.

The auto industry is facing a double edged sword in meeting tough new mileage and carbon standards. But the good news is that help could be on the way in the form of higher ethanol blends.

Higher octane fuels allow automakers to make small bore, high compression engines that can achieve impressive efficiency gains. The challenge is to do so while also reducing carbon tailpipe emissions. If that octane comes from the oil barrel, there will be problems. On the other hand, ethanol blends in the 25-30% range can provide a premium fuel with a significantly lower carbon footprint and reduced emissions. A 92-94 octane at the pump opens a world of possibilities, and achieving that level should be among our industry’s top priorities. A recent Department of Energy report indicated more than 80% of new cars by 2020 will be turbocharged to allow for downsizing while maintaining performance and emissions. Again, that only works with a high octane, low carbon fuel.

OK, so let’s go make high octane fuel, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple, although it should be. As usual, the shadow falling over us is cast by our friends at the EPA. The EPA’s regulatory roadblocks such as the RVP restriction, MOVES model, and certification fuels, to name just a few, are making it difficult for higher ethanol blends to enter the market. Plus what makes no sense is the failure of the EPA to consider octane and ethanol in order to meet mileage and carbon reduction rules.

Before signing onto the mileage and carbon changes, the auto industry insisted that the EPA conduct a mid-course evaluation (MTE) for the 2022-2025 period to re-assess the viability of the targets. That process has begun, and what is frustrating to us is that EPA is insisting that the evaluation be  limited to vehicle technologies and NOT the fuel that powers these engines.  The EPA assumes a world of continued 85/87 octane when the auto industry has been pleading for higher octane fuels for years. Our work at Urban Air, in regular consultation with the auto industry, confirms we can achieve huge gains in mileage while reducing carbon through higher ethanol blends, and the EPA needs to make that part of the discussion. What purpose is served by putting blinders on to a practical solution that is readily available?

Studies by Ford and others have determined that E30 high octane fuel would allow them to increase fuel efficiency and reduce tailpipe carbon emissions by 7% each. This is an immediately available and easily adopted technology requiring little if any change in consumer driving and fueling habits with no cost to taxpayers. In addition, numerous USDA studies confirm that high-yield corn acres sequester substantially more carbon than previously believed. And new data suggests that corn ethanol’s carbon footprint is 50 – 80% smaller than gasoline, and shrinking, while gasoline’s carbon footprint is growing.

For that reason I am very supportive of a new initiative called the High Octane Low Carbon Alliance which is an effort initiated by UAI and includes organizations such as ICM, RFA, National Corn, CFDC, Fuel Freedom Foundation, and others, to work through Tom Daschle to make sure we are part of those discussions.

And, what would be icing on the cake is if, after years of requesting, we get the EPA to update its lifecycle analysis of corn ethanol, accurately showing our ability to significantly reduce its carbon intensity.