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  • Alternative Fuel Sources - E85 - California's Flex-Fueled Farce

Alternative Fuel Sources - E85 - California's Flex-Fueled Farce

Recycled Beer Cuts Gas Mileage By 85 Percent!

John Gilbert
Apr 1, 2006
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In the following months and years to come, the American motoring public will be subjected to an ever-accelerating media blitz, regarding alternative fuels. Most of this information will be sensationalized, futuristic baloney, generated to either fuel television ratings or political agendas, while not informing the general public about currently available alternative fuel sources.
With each new edition of Sport Truck, we will identify and address the different segments of alternative fuel technologies and reveal how our valued readers can apply it to improve their daily lives. The subsequent story recounts the evolution of our alternative fuel education while recapping our firsthand experience in our beloved home state of California.
Diamond Lane Flyer Derailed
Before they all died off, there used to be elderly people around that liked to babble something about "the best laid plans of mice and men." The old expression never really made much sense to us until our recent experience trying to develop the story you are about to read. Long story short, it all went terribly sideways and completely out of control.
Our intentions were to publish an informative tech feature explaining to Sport Truck readers how to legally drive solo in their state's HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane simply by opting to burn compressed natural gas (CNG) in their trucks. It seemed simple enough.
This past June, one of our contributing editors bought a '05 GMC Sierra that came with a blue tag indicating it was an Alternative Fueled Vehicle. He asked the GMC salesman if the blue tag meant his new truck was CNG ready.
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The salesman replied, "Don't ask me about that alt-fuel stuff. I don't know anything about it."
After several weeks of Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV) ownership, our contributor soon discovered his GMC salesman was only one among millions of people in the supposed ecologically enlightened state that were completely in the dark regarding FFVs-not a surprise, really, but we'll get into that later.
Lately, California, Arizona, and a few other states, have enacted laws that allow single-occupant AFVs (Alternative Fuel Vehicle) access to their HOV lanes. This was made possible on August 10, 2005, when President Bush signed the federal transportation bill (H.R.3) into law. Since this is a federal law, it means that every state in the Union is welcome to participate.
A Message From Gov. Schwarzenegger
The following is a direct quote from Gov. Schwarzenegger cut and pasted from the DMV page of the state of California's website.
"The HOV waiver and sticker program is another example of California's leadership role in the areas of clean air, alternate fuel systems, environmentally friendlier vehicles, and transportation funding," Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said. "I am very pleased the President has signed the legislation and that we can move forward with this important program. It's a common sense policy that represents yet another step toward cleaning up our environment and reducing air pollution. The more we can encourage Californians to buy and drive cleaner-air hybrid cars and trucks, and give them some incentive to do so, the better off we will all be."
Arnold's initial 28 words were pretty encouraging. Upon reading this news, our contributor got enthused about the prospect of being able to drive his AFV solo in the diamond lane and decided to find out what it would take to acquire a single-driver sticker for his GMC.
Suddenly, everything about this situation went into an uncontrollable slide with some very unpredictable results. It was discovered the GMC was an AFV all right, but more precisely, an FFV (Flex-Fueled Vehicle) that burned a fuel known as E85. In addition to this, we learned California will only issue HOV permits to dedicated vehicles or hybrids. Flex-fueled vehicles are excluded from this program.
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What Is E85 And Where Can One Get It?
The blue card that identified itself as an "Alternative Fueled Vehicle Buyer's Guide," included with the GMC owner's manual package, didn't provide any clues to what kind of alternative fuel the GMC burned. The GMC owner's manual doesn't make any mention of E85 being an alternative fuel but does devote one page to decoding the VIN number (VIN Code Z) to let operators know if E85 can be used. Briefly, the owner's manual mentions that E85 is a "renewable fuel" made from renewable sources such as corn and other crops, but nowhere is the term "alternative fuel" mentioned.
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When it comes to learning about where E85 can be purchased, GMC refers its truck owners to visit the U.S. Department of Energy at their alternative fuels website. We checked it out, and unfortunately, the DOE fails to mention that of the three E85 stations serving California's population of 33,871,648 people, only one station is accessible to the general public and it's in San Diego (Chula Vista). The good news is they have a double-sided pump capable of servicing two vehicles at a time...whoopee!
What exactly is E85? As defined by the U.S. department of Energy, E85 is a motor fuel blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), "E85 has the highest oxygen content of any transportation fuel available today, making it burn cleaner than gasoline. Not to take the NEVC's word for it, we conducted an E85 search on the State of California's official website and sure enough, California confirmed the NEVC's claim. It went on to state ethanol contains 50 percent more oxygen than Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE). (Before MTBE was identified as a carcinogen in California, the state consumed more than 25 percent of the world's annual MTBE production.)
According to the State of California's website: "MTBE has caused public concern because it can contaminate groundwater (along with other gasoline components) when underground fuel tanks leak. MTBE moves faster in water than other fuel components and, in small amounts, renders drinking water unusable. On March 25, 1999, Governor Davis declared that MTBE presents an environmental risk to California and directed California State agencies to take steps towards eliminating its use in California gasoline by December 31, 2002. The Governor's actions were consistent with the findings and recommendations of an MTBE assessment performed by the University of California. In March 2002, the Governor directed that the prohibition of the use of MTBE be postponed for one year. The Governor found that it was possible to eliminate use of MTBE on January 1, 2003, without significantly risking disruption of the availability of gasoline in California."
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Initially, the stated reasons, MTBE was chosen over ethanol because it could be blended at the refinery whereas ethanol has to be blended at the distribution center, and it was cheaper to buy.
The NEVC says the advantage of E85 over currently available conventional gasolines is "fewer exhaust emissions result in reduced production of smog and a decline in respiratory illness associated with poor air quality. E85 also reduces greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming, as much as 39 to 46 percent compared to gasoline."
That's all great news, but as performance enthusiasts what impressed us the most about E85 was its 105 octane rating and its inherent ability to deliver a much cooler intake charge than conventional gasoline.
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What this means to gearheads is, we can run higher-compression ratios, pull more ignition-advance, and make a lot more horsepower-all this while spending less money than for regular unleaded gasoline
We've read test data (7-year-old research) claiming E85 delivers lower fuel mileage than 87-octane unleaded, but the mileage testing we conducted recently on our '05 L59 GMC didn't confirm these old findings. To the contrary, during our first run from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Anaheim, California, the GMC averaged 21 mpg on 87-octane unleaded gasoline. We repeated our Vegas-to-Anaheim trip with 105-octane E85 and averaged 22 mpg. Granted, we didn't employ SAE-controlled test methods, but in the real world we figured these were reliable enough statistics to understand E85 a little better.
The key to impressive fuel mileage from E85 seems to be whether or not a vehicle is capable of optimizing ethanol's power potential. We suspect the earlier FFVs tested were tuned for gasoline and not capable of automatically recalibrating the engine's fuel and timing for ethanol.
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If someone from General Motors could verify whether an '05 L59 engine optimizes for E85, we would like to know. The only vehicle we have proof positive that optimizes for E85 is the new Saab 9-5 2.0 BioPower. Saab released figures that the 9-5 BioPower cranks out more horsepower and performance when it's running on E85 than on unleaded regular gasoline. The Saab's turbo motor produces 180 brake horsepower (bhp) with E85 and 150 bhp on gasoline. On top of a 20 percent increase in maximum horsepower, 16 percent more torque is produced with E85 over conventional gasoline. We should mention the Saab senses the presence of E85, which recalibrates and adjusts the engine management system to accommodate the different timing characteristics and the air/fuel mixture requirements of ethanol. Saab says that the new turbo flex-fuel engine improves fuel consumption under mid- to high-load driving because fuel enrichment for engine cooling is no longer necessary. The Saab is also turbo-charged, which provides the ability to alter the engine's effective compression ratio by increasing turbo boost to accommodate the higher octane rating of ethanol over pump gas. We don't expect to see 20 and 16 percent power gains in a naturally aspirated scenario by simply switching to E85.
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105-Octane E85 From Reclaimed Beer
In our initial quest for information on E85, we were told the reason it was virtually nonexistent in California was because ethanol was only produced in the corn-belt states and the expense of shipping it cross-country was prohibitive. Another theory we learned directly from NEVC spokesperson Michelle Kautz was E85 is not CARB-approved and therefore hardly sold in California. We learned from the NEVC's website there were three E85 outlets in California-only one is accessible to the general public-so the information we were gathering wasn't quite adding up. We delved deeper into the State of California's website and learned that it wasn't E85 that was not approved, but the E85 fuel nozzle itself. "E85 components have not been certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB)." It went on to state, "A vapor recovery equipment manufacturer working in collaboration with R&D applicants working together may submit an application for an E85-compatible vapor recovery system." This means the E85 nozzles currently in use in California are operating under an R&D permit. Apparently, no manufacturer wants to step up to the plate because there isn't a monetary incentive to market an E85 CARB-compliant nozzle.
The State of California spent millions of dollars on its failed EV (Electric Vehicle) recharge stations. Have they even considered E85 (Ethanol) as an alternative fuel? The following report is a direct quote from the State of California's website on the subject:
"Ethanol Raises Questions But Also Represents Opportunity For California
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Ethanol, a form of alcohol derived from corn and other biological sources, has been used as a gasoline additive for many years. ARB's cleaner-burning gasoline regulation allows the use of ethanol. Ethanol use in California is expected to increase significantly even if the federal oxygen requirement is eliminated. For this reason, the Governor directed the ARB, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to perform an analysis of the health and environmental effects of the use of ethanol as a fuel oxygenate. The analysis found that there will be no significant risk to public health or the environment.
While most ethanol currently is produced from corn, it can be produced from agricultural waste, forest waste, and other types of 'biomass.' An increase in ethanol use in California could stimulate the formation of businesses that convert these waste products to ethanol. Because some agriculture and forest wastes are burned, air-quality improvements could occur in some areas if these wastes were instead converted to ethanol. The Governor directed the California Energy Commission (CEC) to conduct a study of the potential for a California-based 'biomass-to-ethanol' industry by the end of 1999. This study indicated that ethanol could be produced from biomass resources with technologies that are available in the near term. The CEC has also published a report on the costs and benefits of a California biomass-to-ethanol production industry."
Prior to discovering the state of California actually had a clue regarding E85, we ran across this article in the October 24, 2005, edition of the Denver Post."
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Coors Doubling Its Fuel Ethanol From Waste Production.
Coors Brewing Company is doubling its current production of 1.5 million gallons of ethanol per year from beer waste by adding a second ethanol processing plant at its Aurora, Colorado, brewery. The ethanol is sold under a contract with Valero Energy Corp., which distributes the ethanol to Diamond Shamrock stations. The new $2.3-million plant will open later this month on the same site.
Coors and Merrick are also building a second facility to process waste biomass to ethanol. The biomass conversion plant will produce in excess of 4 million gallons per year of ethanol through conventional processes."
So much for the theory that shipping ethanol cross-country made it prohibitive; and Colorado isn't the only place that has breweries either. There are numerous breweries across California-Miller Brewing and Anheiser-Busch just to name a couple. One can only imagine how many million gallons of beer waste has already been poured into California's sewers.
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California's Hershey Highway
In our research, we learned the Ford Motor Company has sold E85-capable FFVs in California, since 1995. Chrysler and General Motors started selling E85 FFVs in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
On the State of California's website, they disclosed there are already more than 250,000 E85-adept FFVs in the state. In the United States, there are more than 5 million vehicles capable of running on E85.
For a state that likes to portray itself as playing "a leadership role in the areas of clean, alternate fuel systems, environmentally friendlier vehicles, and transportation funding," it looks like California's alternative fuel programs are more about dog-and-pony shows than cutting dependence on foreign oil or lowering GHG. Instead of allocating funds for ethanol development (which can be used to generate hydrogen), California will spend 6.5 million dollars during 2006 promoting the "Hydrogen Highway." Perhaps a better name would be the "Hershey Highway" because it looks like California's taxpayers are really going to take it in the shorts.
It's The Golden Cheese
Since time constraints wouldn't allow us to drive to one of Minnesota's 200-plus filling stations selling E85, we drove to California's one and only E85 filling station instead.
The 4001 El Cajon Blvd. address turned out to be a Ford dealership with the largest selection of alternate fuels available in the world today. The folks at Pearson Ford are hosts to the San Diego Environmental Foundation, an "EcoCenter for Alternate Fuel Education." They're nice people and we're sure we'll visit Pearson Ford and the Regional Transportation Center in the future to test additional alt fuels.
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Before departing, they told us the E85 at the RTC contained ethanol made in Corona, California, by the Golden Cheese Company. The Golden Cheese Company of California creates enough cheese whey to produce 5 million gallons of ethanol per year.
How many miles per gallon did we get on E85 made from cheese ethanol? For the 100-mile return trip to Orange County, we ran with the flow of freeway traffic as high as 85 mph, with bursts to the GMC's governed speed limit of 100 mph. Back in Orange County, we drove 82.3 miles in stop-and-go traffic and then refueled with 11.5 gallons of unleaded gas. Our test loop averaged almost 16 mpg, while driving like idiots the entire time.
E85 is here and now-not to mention, it's lowering greenhouse gases. This stuff could render the Middle East irrelevant. Imagine if they could go back to being goat herders and camel riders just like they should be. They wouldn't have any money to buy rocket launchers or nerve gas, and they could go right back to the Iron Age, which is where they really want to be. Shouldn't that be a national priority?

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