E85; A growing resource

E85; Big money finds another resource for transportation energy By Lou Ann Hammond

Alternative fuels are a great idea. It gives us options in times of floods and hurricanes and it gives our farmers another revenue stream that stays in America. The problem has been getting big money, big corporations on board, working together. At the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors announced a joint demonstration project along with the state of California, Chevron Technology Ventures, and Pacific Ethanol to learn more about consumer awareness and acceptance of E85 in use of their flex-fuel vehicles. Flex-fuel vehicles are capable of operating on either gasoline or 85 percent ethanol without any additional modifications, aftermarket conversions, or cumbersome switches for vehicle users. Currently, there are more than 400 public E85 fueling sites in operation across the nation.

According to Beth Lowery, General Motors has over 1.5 million flex-fuel vehicles in America and have had for quite awhile. “From this demonstration we hope to develop an infrastructure for E85. Even though we have been developing flex-fuel vehicles for sometime customers dont know about flex-fuel. We will start educating customers, so that they can make a choice. Before this demonstration there was no collective will.” GM approved the use of 10 percent ethanol blended gasoline in all GM products more than 20 years ago, and produces almost five million E10 capable vehicles annually.

GM intends to offer between 50 to 100 of it’s E85-capable Chevrolet Impala passenger cars and Silverado pickup trucks for consideration in the states annual competitive bid process. Flexible-fuel vehicles will be used by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) at various operations in Northern California and the states Central Valley.

Greg Vesey, President, Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV), says that “We are worried about the U.S. and world demand for transportation energy. Chevron has committed $325 million to CTV for energy efficiency demonstrations. California is showing real leadership with this demonstration in real world testing. We like this test because you dont see real environmental benefit’s till you get to 85 percent ethanol. We expect this effort will help us learn more about consumer acceptance of E85 as well as issues surrounding it’s production and distribution.” CTV intends to work with CalTrans to provide E85 fuel and install 2 to 3 refueling pumps in these locations. Chevron made $144.4 billion (with a B) in gross revenue for the first nine months of the year. Their net income for the first nine months of the year was $10 billion (with another B).

Tom Koehler, Vice President, Pacific Ethanol Inc, a California-based ethanol production and marketing company, intends to provide the ethanol to Chevron Technology Ventures for the project. According to Koehler, “there are different issues when working with ethanol, such as, ethanol cant be put through gasoline pipelines. Vehicles need to be designed with a higher compression to optimize the benefit of ethanol. Flex-fuels are optimized for this use.”

Since California currently imports more than half of it’s crude oil, it has become a statewide priority to develop and grow diverse energy sources. According to Jerry martin, Director of Communications for California Air Resources board, “There will be about 50-100 vehicles and 2 stations in this demonstration. We are hoping this demonstration shows that E85 is a viable fuel that will relieve pressure on the imported petroleum. California is very aggressive in it’s stance on air quality and the reduction of imported oils. Currently, California has one ethanol plant and four that are being built. California uses 900 million gallons of ethanol a year, but we only produce 25 million gallons a year. We are very interested in innovative technology and helping small businesses bridge the gap to fruition. The CARB was instrumental in converting rice straw, that used to be burned creating bad air quality, into ethanol.”

“Each plant will create more than 700 new jobs in California, and infuse more than $100 million in capital into the local economy,” Bill Jones, Pacific Ethanols Chairman said. “E85 can help increase the amount of renewable fuel already used in California. Pacific Ethanol is pleased to be a part of the work, and looks forward to helping supply more and more ethanol for the state.”

“Governor Schwarzenegger strongly supports the development of alternative fuels to improve Californias air quality, reduce CO2 emissions, and achieve energy independence,” said Cal/EPA Secretary Alan C. Lloyd. “This demonstration program involving E-85 fuel technology insures that California will continue to play a leading role in protecting the environment and public health.”

Although somewhat lower in energy content, ethanol delivers similar performance as regular gasoline and is a renewable, domestically-produced fuel. E85, a blend of 85 percent ethyl alcohol and 15 percent gasoline, is produced from the starch and sugar in agricultural products, primarily domestically-produced corn. There are projects underway to convert cellulose, corn stalk and other agri-throw aways, into ethanol.

For the 2006 model year, GM offers nine E85 flexible fuel vehicles, including the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Suburban, GMC Yukon XL, Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Chevrolet Avalanche, Chevrolet Impala, and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. In Europe, the GM-owned Saab brand is making significant headway with the E85-fueled Saab 9-5 BioPower, which is now available to consumers in Sweden and Germany. A 310 hp concept version of the 9-5 BioPower debuted at the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show to illustrate how Saab might extend this initiative to the United States.

About the Author:

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY), Women's World Car of the Year (WWCOTY), and the Concept Car of the Year.

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