September 10, 2005


The New Prize: Alternative Fuels (DANNY HAKIM, 9/10/05, NY Times)

In a nation that has shrugged at conservation for two decades, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on gasoline prices has been a bracing reality check. All year long, as prices have ticked up, a movement has been afoot away from jumbo sport utility vehicles and toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

That said, it would take a radical change to wean the country off foreign oil. Still, more than ever before, the nation's roads are a moving laboratory with all manner of alternatives to gasoline combustion engines, often being driven by average Americans, if in small numbers.

There are cars powered by natural gas, by hydrogen fuel cells and by French fry grease. There are electric cars and hybrid electric cars that can be plugged into the power grid.

What separates E85 is that more than four million American cars and trucks have the ability to run on it right now, even though the majority of people who own these so-called flex-fuel vehicles are not even aware of the ability. Already, Brazil has turned to ethanol en masse, though the fuel there is derived from the more prevalent local crop, sugarcane.

Gregory J. Cobb recently replaced premium gasoline pumps at two of his five Indiana stations with E85. At one station near South Bend, he said, he was selling 24,000 gallons of E85 a month compared with the 1,700 gallons of premium gas he had been selling.

"One of the customers drove about 30 miles to the station; she said: 'I'm putting my dad's corn in the car. I'd rather do that than pay OPEC,' " Mr. Cobb said. "That's why we did it, too. If we're going to get diverse, away from dependency on foreign oil, we have to do this. And to be honest, our premium sales weren't doing much."

In Madison, Wis., Rebecca Bell and her husband, Kevin, started using E85 in the last couple of weeks to fuel their Ford Explorer and their Chevy minivan. They have also started carpooling with neighbors.

"I feel better that it's coming from the United States," said Ms. Bell, 34, a vice president of a veterinary drug company and a mother of three.

Pumps devoted to Premium are a waste.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2005 6:54 AM

Got a wood stove? You (and the nation) would do better energy-wise to burn corn for heat than to waste fuel and natural gas turning it into ethanol.

Some good information and discussion on alt energy and alt fuels can be found here:

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 10, 2005 10:13 AM

There are high performance engines out there that require premium, and many of those vehicles still get better gas milage than your basic SUV. If you want to add some sort of alternative fuel, dump the mid-grade formula, even if it means putting new tanks under service stations. Midgrade was in limbo for about 15 years anyway, when stations still had to provide fuel for cars that used leaded gasoline following the first oil crisis in 1973, while offering unleaded regular and premium grades for newer cars.

Posted by: John at September 10, 2005 11:30 AM

Yes, the mid-grade should be banned too.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2005 11:33 AM

Good point Jason. You do need a stove that is set up for burning corn. I have two wood burning stoves and it wouldn't work out too well to shovel cornel corn into them. Places like California need to look into alternative sources of energy. How many BTUs in old hippies?

Posted by: AllenS at September 10, 2005 1:44 PM

Jason, perhaps you missed the point. It appears to be working in the midwest although it may not be the final solution. To the extent it continues in use and perhaps expands as biomass wastes, algae and nuclear waste heat become part of the process to produce ethanol and that in turn reduces oil imports and the balance of payments to the M.E., I'd suggest it is a benefit while we pursue more exotic processes out into the future. In the meantime perhaps you can heat your house or run your car on zinc batteries. They've been testing them for about 5 years on buses so far and they're getting some play in flatlands like LA, but they're still in the testing stage. Meanwhile Brazil is running their natinal auto inventory largely on ethanol mixes and exporting some to China. They're producing it from cane and soybeans. I hope you live to see ergosphere's speculations come to fruition, but I wouldn't count on it anytime soon.

Posted by: Genecis at September 10, 2005 1:47 PM

Danny needs to qualify his comment about saving 40 to 50 cents per gallon by filling up with ethanol. Federal taxes gasoline are reduced 51 cents per gallon of ethanol. For blended fuels, (typically 1 gal of ethanol and 9 gal of gaoline) thats about 5 cents per gal on ehtanol blends. The driver may be saving, but the rest of us are subsidizing the production and use of ethanol.


Posted by: Robby at September 10, 2005 2:01 PM

I thought all that Brazilian Rain Forest being removed for their soy and cane production was bad. I though all those prarie and plains states being returned to the bison from grain production was good. So, which is it, energy production or Gaia?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 10, 2005 4:13 PM

You don't need to use premium, even if the mfg says so. All that will happen is that the ecc will retard the spark a bit. You may run shy a few hp, but you didn't really need them anyway:-)

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2005 5:00 PM

Given the choice it would be energy production for me by a long shot. I'm not to big on blood for oil.

Posted by: Genecis at September 10, 2005 8:03 PM

Not my car, if I don't use premium, violates engine warranty if engine goes poof!

2000 Infiniti I-30

Posted by: Sandy P at September 10, 2005 10:37 PM

Trade it in.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2005 11:53 PM


Yes, it is working fine in the midwest - as a farm subsidy. It was a bad idea when I was a graduate student at Iowa State, and it is still a bad idea now.

The zinc-air idea, however, I do like. I work as a forester in Utah. I could come up with thousands of tons of (currently unmerchantable) wood fiber monthly to provide the carbon component of a solar zinc reduction plant were someone to build one in the west desert.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 11, 2005 4:06 AM

Since it takes more fossel fuel to produce it than the energy you get out of it, it is stupid to advocate using it.

Posted by: at September 13, 2005 4:00 AM