Friday, May 2, 2008

Loss of fuel economy from ethanol-blended gasoline hits motorists in the wallet

One motorist who has noticed the effect that ethanol has on mileage is Cleo Campbell of Stewartsville, Mo. “I’ve been driving a long time,” he said, “and I know what I normally get, and I don’t get that now.”
One motorist who has noticed the effect that ethanol has on mileage is Cleo Campbell of Stewartsville, Mo. “I’ve been driving a long time,” he said, “and I know what I normally get, and I don’t get that now.”
Charles Kigar doesn’t think twice when he has a choice of buying a gallon of conventional gasoline or a gallon of gas that contains ethanol at the same price.

He buys the gas without ethanol.

The reason is a simple matter of science. Conventional gas delivers more energy than a gallon that contains ethanol.

If it’s a gallon of E-10, which is a blend of 10 percent ethanol and conventional gas now widely available in the Kansas City area, there’s an energy difference of about 3.4 percent.

Now that may not seem like much when you’re topping off the tank this week. But over the course of a year of normal driving, it would take an additional 40 gallons of E-10 to go the same distance as conventional gas. If they were both priced the same, it would mean an extra $120.

If it’s E-85, a blend containing 85 percent ethanol that can be used in specially equipped vehicles, the energy loss soars and more than offsets its lower cost, even though E-85 is about 60 cents per gallon less at retail than conventional gas.

Mileage can suffer by about 25 percent with E-85, according to AAA. Over the course of a year, that amounts to an extra 300 gallons of E-85 to go the same distance as when using conventional gas. That means an average household, when the total cost of conventional gas and E-85 are compared, would spend nearly $100 more per year for E-85.

To Kigar, an Overland Park computer programmer and self-described “car nut,” a consumer can’t make an informed decision about gas without taking into consideration its energy content. Even if ethanol-blended gas is cheaper, it can still end up costing you more because you’re getting less energy.

“That fact has not been made clear to people,” he said. “In effect, you can end up paying more for less.”

Mileage mysteries

The growing use of ethanol is making energy content more of an issue — particularly as record fuel prices crimp consumers.

The Energy Information Administration is keeping track of how ethanol is affecting average fuel economy in the United States. The federal agency projects that additional ethanol usage this year will cause average fuel economy to decline by an extra 0.5 percent.

Moreover, the ethanol impact is expected to increase because the federal government approved an energy bill last year that encourages a sharp increase in ethanol production.

In Missouri, we’re already there. Since January, E-10 has been required for regular and midgrade gasoline. Premium gas sold in the state can also contain 10 percent ethanol, but it is not required.

Ronald Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said the energy content of ethanol was a “policy issue for others to decide.” His association helped get the law changed from how it was originally proposed so that ethanol-blended fuels would not have to be sold if their wholesale price was more than conventional fuel.

In Kansas, there is no requirement to sell fuel with ethanol, but more than 50 percent of the gasoline sold in the state now contains ethanol. That is expected to increase next year when gas retailers in the state that sell E-10 will be eligible for tax credits.

Some motorists say they are already seeing the effect of ethanol on gas mileage.

“I’ve been driving a long time, and I know what I normally get, and I don’t get that now,” said Cleo Campbell of Stewartsville, Mo.

Many drivers say their mileage has declined 10 percent or more since they began using E-10.

Several farmers near Harrisonville say they have noticed a difference in gas mileage since January.

Initially, there was confusion among the farmers who gather many mornings at the local cafe or welding shop, said Melvin Browning, a farmer and former Kansas City fire battalion chief.

Browning said he has two three-quarter-ton pickup trucks, and his wife has a 2005 Chevrolet Malibu. He said all three vehicles showed that they were getting about 3 miles per gallon less than last year.

“That is backed up by the paperwork,” Browning said.

Experts say it’s difficult to blame E-10 for that much of a decline. Figuring out the ethanol effect on your vehicle can be squishy, since mileage can be affected by a variety of factors ranging from the amount of air in your tires to the temperature of the fuel.

But experts say ethanol undoubtedly has an effect, since there is a connection between energy content and mileage.

British thermal units measure energy content. A gallon of ethanol has 76,000 Btu. Conventional gasoline, in contrast, has 115,000 Btu. If you purchase a blended gallon of gas that contains 10 percent ethanol, you get 111,100 Btu.

That amounts to a 3.4 percent reduction in energy. So if you have a car that gets 20 miles per gallon, you’ll likely end up losing seven-tenths of a mile per gallon because of the energy content loss.

That’s enough to matter to Kigar, the computer programmer. He drives a Smart car, a two-seater vehicle recently introduced in the United States.

It’s possible to purchase premium with or without ethanol at the same price. In that situation, purchasing the fuel without the ethanol effectively can save him about 14 cents per gallon because of the extra energy he’s getting. For an average household, that can amount to about $168 a year.

“I’m just a tough shopper,” Kigar said. “I’m watching my pennies, and I’m trying to get the most for my money.”

Just how problematic it is to purchase fuel without considering its energy content is especially evident with it comes to E-85, the blend that contains 85 percent ethanol. Only a few stations in the Kansas City area now sell E-85, but the number is expected to grow.

To those that have the flex-fuel vehicles that can use the fuel, it’s tempting to purchase E-85 because at first glance it appears to be a great deal compared with conventional gasoline. But at least for now, it isn’t.

AAA now calculates a price for E-85 to adjust for its energy content. The national average pump price for the fuel on Thursday was $2.91 per gallon; regular gasoline was $3.56. But adjusted for its energy content, the price for E-85 jumps to $3.83, or 27 cents more than regular.

“We did it to inform the consumer,” said Mike Right, a spokesman for AAA Auto Club of Missouri. “You have to consider the effect of fuel economy.”

Ethanol economics

In fact, it’s now tough for ethanol, because of the energy loss, to be priced at a level so it can beat the price of conventional gasoline. That’s because a growing share of the nation’s corn production is being diverted to producing ethanol, which has been a contributing factor in driving corn prices over $6 a bushel.

The energy economics of ethanol are a matter of concern to automakers such as General Motors Corp., which is counting on ethanol-fueled cars to give it time to develop other cars that can use other alternative fuels such as hydrogen.

So far, GM has produced 3 million vehicles that can use conventional fuel or E-85. The price of E-85 needs to at least be competitive, after being adjusted for its energy content, with conventional gas to ensure that more of it is used, the automaker says.

“Price equalization is really important,” said Alan Holder, manager of biofuels communications at GM.

The ethanol industry’s reaction, at least in some instances, appears to be to ignore the issue of energy content.

The Missouri Corn Growers Association last week released a study that estimated E-10 prices over the next 10 years would be 7.2 cents per gallon cheaper than conventional gas — resulting in an annual statewide savings of $214 million, or $54 per driver.

But the study did not account for the energy loss.

The author of the study, John Urbanchuk, director of LECG, a consulting firm in Wayne, Pa., said the loss was so insignificant it was in the “noise category.”

“It’s really a negligible loss,” he said.

At current pricing, though, that energy loss more than wipes out the savings that the study says consumers will reap by using ethanol-blended fuel.

But what if the energy loss from ethanol isn’t as great as most think it is? That idea is being broached by some in the ethanol industry who are arguing that the way ethanol burns overcomes at least some of the energy loss.

One study, released in December, even claimed that E-20 or E-30 blends in some instances got better mileage than conventional fuel.

“Initial findings indicate that we as a nation haven’t begun to recognize the value of ethanol,” said Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol.

Those findings were met with considerable skepticism. An official with the Union of Concerned Scientists said the conclusion that E-20 or E-30 gave improved mileage wasn’t convincing. Others have also questioned the findings.

“We don’t believe that study,” said Adler, the GM spokesman.

Some research suggests older cars that don’t have computers and sensors to adjust for fuels which have more oxygen, like an ethanol blend, might experience less energy loss. The reasoning is that some of those cars could be burning a richer mixture of fuel and air and that it is made leaner with ethanol.

Overall, though, there is a direct connection between energy content and mileage. That conclusion was reached by the Environmental Protection Agency in a study in the 1990s that looked at ethanol-blended fuel and gasoline with the additive MTBE, which also caused an energy loss.

EPA officials say their position remains the same about the effect on mileage of such fuels.

“Yes, there is a correlation between energy content and miles per gallon,” said Margo Oge, director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

Meanwhile, questions about ethanol are rising among some consumers.

Gary Edwards of Lake Lotawana makes a daily 90-mile round to his job at Kansas City International Airport. Lately, he has posted gas mileage that is 1 to 2 mpg less than he once did.

To Edwards, conventional gas isn’t looking quite so bad.

“As a consumer I wish I had a choice.” he said.

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