Wednesday, May 24, 2006

E85 rant

My dearest Nancy made me watch 4 hours worth of 10.5: Apocalypse between Sunday night and last night. It's our special bond. She loves the campy disaster movies and I make fun of them with her. According to NBC's website the entire movie was filmed in High Definition, which "achieves a whole new level of visual affects and style that has not previously been achieved on network television." Frankly, they should probably work on their HD technique if they want people to buy more HDTV. I thought most of the effects (I hesitate to use the adjective 'special' in this case) were low quality CGI. I actually turned to Nancy at one point and said, "That effect could have been a little more special."

After watching four hours of any major network, it's pretty easy to see who's paying their bills. The big push we both noticed came from Chevy. And Chevy, in a desperate attempt to convince people that buying gigantic SUVs is still OK, is pushing E85 like there's no tomorrow. This prompted several discussions between us about how much petroleum it really takes to make E85. We both knew it was a fair amount. It turns out it's damn near 1 to 1. Hillary Clinton wants to have E85 at half of the gas stations in the U.S. by the year 2015. But does this make sense? Not really, according to The Oil Drum (nicely summarized by Cyclelicious below:

Our annual gasoline consumption is up to almost 140 billion gallons. That means on a BTU equivalent basis, converting the entire US corn crop into ethanol would amount to 13.4% of our annual gasoline demand. It takes 77,228 BTUs of fossil fuel inputs to make 83,961 BTUs of "green, renewable" ethanol. That means that in reality, using our entire corn crop would only displace 1% of our annual gasoline consumption. We can't possibly produce enough E85 to justify putting in all those pumps.

OK, so maybe it's just a fair trade. But E85 burns cleaner than oil, so that should make it better even if it's no more efficient, right? Perhaps. I might buy that arguement if there were more than 700 places in the entire country where you can buy E85 (200 are in Minnesota alone, leaving approximately 10 stations for each of the remaining 49 states). So even if your new Silverado is E85 ready, you can't hardly buy the stuff if you want to. And the best part? E85 is actually decreasing the overall fuel economy of the average car. How? This is a two part answer.

The first part involves Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). CAFE, in simple terms, mandates that the cars made by a manufacturer need to meet an average MPG of 27.5 mpg. So for every 14mpg Silverado that gets manufactured, the company needs to make a 41 mpg Aveo to offset it. Under the Alternative Motor Fuels Act (AMFA), auto manufacturers receive a 1.2 mile per gallon credit toward their CAFE requirements. So instead of making that Aveo get 41mpg, now it only needs to get 39.8. But since E85 isn't widely available, most of these vehicles are running on plain old gas. And the manufacturers know this will be the case. So they design the cars to run better on gas than on E85. Wouldn't want somebody to buy an E85 vehicle, not be able to find E85, put regular in and then think the performance sucks. So the 1.2 mpg credit simply amounts to vehicles that have an average CAFE of 1.2 mpg less.

The second part, where it really gets fun, is when people actually do make an effort to use E85. "The flex-fuel Chevrolet Impala equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine gets an EPA-estimated 23/31 mpg (city/highway) on gasoline and 16/21 mpg when burning E85" according to Plus E85 costs more, mile per mile. estimates that if gas costs $3 per gallon, E85 would need to be priced at $2.15 per gallon for a motorist to break even due to the decreased mileage.

So Chevy, thanks but no thanks on the Flex Fuel Vehicles. I'll keep burning up brontasaurauses until somebody comes up with something better. And riding my bike.


budda43 said...

ha ha

I like the term not-so-special effects. I tend to use it often when watching the Star Wars prequels.

I had a college professor tell our class that oil would literally run out in the next 50-100 years, I assume she was a crackpot but she may not be that far off.

In any case, at some point, we'll all be forced to find something better - and thats a good thing.

Nancy said...

I knew the ratio was bad, but I didn't know it was pretty much 1:1. Christ on a bike! This is going green?!

Karl said...

Great post! I've been watching the ethanol circus for a while now and I too don't see how it will be helping us out much at all. Lots of snake oil.

Jim said...

Oil will never literally run out, but it is likely to become too expensive and difficult to obtain and use. We've already pumped and burned the easy-to-get stuff.

On the CAFE standards, you mentioned a Silverado's poor fuel economy being offset by the better efficiency of the Aveo. If I understand correctly, this isn't quite true because trucks and SUVs are (or were) exempt from CAFE standards. This is one reason why car manufacturers seem hung up on making and selling these vehicles. I heard that Congress recently removed this exemption, but there is some controversy about how stringent the new truck and SUV fuel economy standards will be.

As for flex-fuel and other solutions that are supposed to seamlessly integrate our oil dependence into another kind of dependence, I am always skeptical. The amount of oil-based energy we use now is enormous in comparison to all other energy sources combined, and 60% of it is used in our personal automobiles. Lots of "green" energy sources don't work well with cars, which require fuels that are both widely available and portable. Add in the issue with using oil to make alternate energy, and I wonder what the point is.

I guess my main point is that these alternative energy efforts all focus on maintaining the car-culture status quo. I don't think it's possible, and I think our efforts would be better focused if we could accept that our way of life cannot continue at current levels indefinitely.

Pete said...

As usual, Jim has a better grasp on the subject than I do. Whatever happens, I think we'll all find ourselves driving a lot less in 50 years.

Randy Wylde said...

This is why I simply smile whenever a truckload of youths has a hard laugh at my wee scooter. Cause their future is going to include a lot more vehicles like mine, and a lot fewer like theirs.

Well, that, and the fact that I also end up bonding with my partner over his bizarre love of horrible disaster movies. I may be on a scooter, but I didn't star in 10.5: Apocalypse, and I wasn't in the remake of Poseidon!.