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E85 Ethanol - No Supply, High Demand

E85 Ethanol - No Supply, High Demand

Posted October 4 2006 12:41 PM by Edward A. Sanchez 
Filed under: Opinions, Trend Observations, Chevy

GM Flexfuel E85 Avalanche

Auto enthusiasts are often painted by our left-leaning friends as hostile to the environment and wanton wasters of precious petroleum resources. Just because we aren't content to putter around in Priuses (Prii?) and stand alongside our proletarian brethren in public transit doesn't necessarily mean we want to hasten the demise of the ozone layer or the South American rainforests. We would like to do our part as much as anyone else to reduce America's depdence on imported oil, we just don't want to give up having fun with our driving machines.

The future holds a glimmer of hope for us gearheads, but for many of us, it remains just that, a glimmer. GM pulled out all the proverbial stops in its latest "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign. Here we see red-meat, full-size pickups and SUVs alongside bucolic Midwestern corn fields, and the subliminal message of patriotism and energy independence. Finally! We can have our cake and eat it too. The vehicles are available coast-to-coast in dealerships. There's only one problem, the miraculous E85 ethanol fuel isn't. The Golden State, long known for its environmental activism and leading the way in tightening emissions standards, is actually one of the biggest laggards in the adoption of ethanol. Minnesota boasts more than 200 stations that carry E85, thanks to a strong agricultural lobby in the state, as well as an established reputation for social activism. Know how many stations carry E85 in environment-loving California? Grab your knickers. . .three. And two of them are not accessible to the general public. That's right, just one that you and I can pull up to and fill up. Unless you live in the San Diego area, you're S.O.L.

I place the blame squarely in the lap of the agency also responsible for banning the majority of passenger-car and light-duty diesels from our state as well, CARB. Yep, I have a sneaking suspicion that some report or executive approval of E85 is sitting on some bureaucrat's desk in Sacramento, languishing under other reports, committee findings, and assorted bureaucratic flotsam.

So here, we see the economic law of supply and demand disrupted by the heavy hand of government. If consumers were given the choice of buying traditional gasoline or E85, at a lower price, I'm sure thousands, if not millions, would take that choice, even if the conventional wisdom is that E85 yields fewer miles per gallon than gasoline. Though a recent test by Truckin's sister publication Sport Truck suggests otherwise.

Granted, only a few models are currently optimized for E85. But it seems upgrading current engines to run on E85 is simply a matter of upgrading the fuel system plumbing, adding a few sensors and re-flashing the ECU to recognize the fuel and optimize the operating parameters. I'm sure I'm over-simplifying the process. But if VW has pledged to make all its non-diesel models in Brazil fully ethanol-compatible by 2008, how hard could it be? If GM truly wants to be the leader not just in ad jingles and taglines, it should follow suit in the U.S. and make all of its non-diesel models likewise E85 capable as well. With a flood of flex-fuel vehicles on the market, and the associated consumer demand for the alternative fuel, the ivory-tower bureaucrats would have no choice but to fast-track the approval of the fuel nationwide.

I would personally gladly sacrifice a few MPG if it meant we could finally pull the hypodermic pipeline of foreign oil out of our arm. Will this shift happen overnight? Probably not. It took Brazil 10 years to fully transition from a petroleum-to-ethanol-powered economy, and it will likely be a decade or more here before we have the production capacity and infrastructure to make such a dramatic shift. But as the old proverb says, "The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step." I say "let's start walking."

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