DRIVE TIME


Fill 'er up With Ethanol?

Mark Solheim

President Bush is pushing a new type of ethanol as the antidote to Americans' addiction to oil. But don't expect to see it at your local gas station any time soon.



After watching the President's State of the Union speech last week, and perhaps catching some of the media coverage as he takes his alternative-energy message on the road, you may be wondering how you missed all the brouhaha about ethanol.

Don't kick yourself. Unless you live in a handful of big corn-producing states, you may never even have seen a filling station that doles out ethanol. Only about 500 gas stations -- out of more than 180,000 -- now offer E85, which is a blend of 85% corn-based ethanol and 15% gasoline.

And fewer than 5 million flex-fuel vehicles that can run on E85 are on the road today. A lot of those are in government and industry fleets. Many owners of flex-fuel vehicles don't even know they have them, or simply fill up with gasoline because E85 isn't available.

What it is

E85 is made mainly from corn-based ethanol. That means it's renewable and, as an alcohol, less polluting than petroleum. Although that sounds like a win-win, it's a less-than-perfect solution to our dependence on oil. Growing corn takes a lot of energy in its own right -- plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting. Producing it requires petroleum, not to mention land and water, and contributes to greenhouse gases.

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That's where the President's new pet project, cellulosic ethanol, comes in. Cellulosic ethanol is made from wood chips or corn stalks, among other agricultural waste often called biomass. Or you can produce it from switch grass, which grows abundantly on the prairies.

President Bush is touting cellulosic ethanol as the antidote to Americans' addiction to oil. It's more expensive to produce than E85 right now, and his goal is to bring the retail price of cellulosic ethanol below the price of gasoline within six years.

But don't hold your breath. Besides a lack of production facilities, the fuel faces problems with distribution. The administration isn't putting its money where its mouth is, either. It's budgeting just $150 million next year for research on breaking down biomass into ethanol efficiently enough to be a cost-effective alternative to oil.

Go yellow

Meanwhile, GM and Ford are making a push for E85 and flex-fuel vehicles, hoping to score points among consumers fed up with the carmakers' gas-guzzling SUVs.

GM previewed its "Live Green Go Yellow" campaign during the Super Bowl. It now has a Livegreengoyellow.com Web site, which has lots of facts about E85 as well as a state-by-state search for stations that dispense it.

GM makes eight flex-fuel vehicles, including the Chevy Impala, Monte Carlo, Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban and Tahoe, and the GMC Sierra and Yukon.

Ford just started manufacturing a flex-fuel F-150 pickup. It also makes a flex-fuel Taurus, Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car. Ford also showcased an E85 Ford Escape Hybrid concept at the Washington, D.C., auto show last month.

Dodge has an E85 Durango, Ram, Caravan and Stratus. Chrysler's Sebring swings both ways, and so does the Nissan Titan.

You generally don't pay more for a flex-fuel vehicle, though production is still limited.

The 411 on E85

E85 has a higher octane than gasoline, allowing for more horsepower and torque. But E85 is usually pricier than gasoline, and because it has less available energy than gas, you get 10% to 20% lower fuel economy. The U.S. Department of Energy says a vehicle has to use 1.4 times as much E85 as gasoline to go the same distance. p>

For example, with the Chevy Impala 3.5-liter V6 flex-fuel vehicle, you'd pay about $475 a year more in fuel costs if you filled it up with E85 than if you filled it up with gas, according to comparisons at www.fueleconomy.gov. That assumes you drive 15,000 miles a year in a typical mix of highway and city driving.

Ethanol has promise as one of the ways to help America kick its oil habit because the cost is likely to come down eventually and gas prices are likely to rise. The best news here, though, is that the carmakers and the Bush administration are starting to pay attention to the problems caused by vehicles that run on a resource that's getting scarcer.



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