E85 Road Test

A couple of months back, I posted Gary Dikkers’ analysis comparing the fuel efficiency of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Gary’s conclusion was:

Both states have almost identical topography, climate, demographics, and about the same mix of urban/rural driving. (In fact, Wisconsin has a slightly higher ratio of urban to rural miles driven.) The two states are about as close to being twins as any two states could be. (Not counting the Vikings/Packers difference of course.) Yet fuel economy in Minnesota is worse, and their drivers buy and burn more fuel than their neighbors.

The only obvious difference that jumps out is that Minnesota has mandated its drivers burn a blend of ethanol and gasoline — a fuel with a known lower energy density than gasoline.

Along that same theme, a reporter in Minnesota has done a road test comparing the operating costs of E85 in Minnesota to regular gasoline in Wisconsin.

Ethanol Part II – Our E85 road test

Some excerpts:

In the effort to find clean alternative sources of energy, consumers have been led to believe they can “go green” by fueling up on corn. “Join the movement,” GM urges. “Go to livegreengoyellow.com.

The U.S. Senate apparently agrees. It voted to increase U.S. ethanol production to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022. The House did not pass the same increase, but the mandate could still make its way into the energy bill Congress gives to the President.

Maybe there’s good reason drivers aren’t demanding ethanol. Performance is an issue. Even with a 10-percent blend of ethanol, a car’s mileage will drop two or three percent. A Congressional Research Service backgrounder on ethanol says 10 percent ethanol blend drops your mileage 2-3 percent. (Link: Report, reference on page CRS-6)

KARE 11 took a road test to find out if ethanol really is a practical alternative to gas. We drove a flex-fuel Dodge Durango, one of about six million vehicles on the road today specially designed to run on either E85 or gasoline, and started with a full tank of pure E85. We drove until the tank was empty.

Using E85, we drove a total of 351.4 miles. The Durango’s tank held 28 gallons. That means our fuel efficiency with E85 was 12.55 miles per gallon.

After the tank had been drained, we re-filled at a gas station in Wisconsin, where the regular unleaded contained no ethanol. We drove back to Minnesota, and with no ethanol in the tank, the car felt the same on the road. But the difference in miles per gallon was huge. With gas containing no ethanol, we averaged about 20.41 miles per gallon. In other words, with E85 in the car, our mileage was 39 percent worse.

The result actually was worse than we expected. Consumer Reports magazine conducted a similar road test and found mileage was 27 percent worse with E85.

(Article The Ethanol Myth)

Either way, the money you save at the pump does not offset the difference in mileage. At the time of our road test, E85 cost 19 percent less than gas. So with E85, you have to spend more money to drive the same distance.

But the conversion of corn into ethanol has been pushed along by billions of dollars in government subsidies. The technology for converting grass is lagging about five years behind. (Link: Minnesota House of Representatives research on ethanol)

I think this ethanol booster has the right idea, though:

Even Don Brown, a former truck driver who calls himself the “E85 Man” and spends his retirement promoting ethanol, said he’d rather use no fuel at all.

“No,” he said, “this is only the first step. We gotta take the first step.”

What is a better way to reduce our oil consumption? “Electrics!” Brown said, snapping his fingers. “I would buy an electric car in a minute.”

Then he paused and said, “If I could.”

I will be the first to acknowledge that price isn’t everything. But I think this is the reason that consumers aren’t demanding E85, which therefore makes it stupid to try to force gas station owners to put in the pumps.

8 thoughts on “E85 Road Test”

  1. it would be great if a news article similar to this were to be published in the popular rags–TIME, NEWSWEEK, USA TODAY–with banner headlines.

    but “BIG GRAIN”–THE GRAIN GUYS who gave us the food pyramid[remember the baseline was carb loaded[eat your sugar loaded cereal kiddies]]–wouldn’t allow it.

    question please–
    if celulose is found to be economically viable someday for ethanol base, have the logistics from farm to pump been[being] addressed any better than were those for corn ethanol? e.g., critical commodioties[ water and heat], transportation to and from, number/location of plants.
    or are we again going to be victims of helter-skelter profit greed?

  2. Corn-ethanol is pushed by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), for the obvious economic reasons.

    All plant based biofuels have the same set of scaling issues: land use, water supply, fertilizer, etc.

    Either you displace agriculture or you have to put additional land under the plow, and we’re not talking about a little bit of land either, but a lot.

    Corn prices have already been driven up, which is good for the farmers and ADM, but bad for the people who want to eat corn. And corn is pretty water intensive to grow.

    Even with cellulose we’ll run into scaling issues pretty quickly, there just isn’t nearly as much energy there as we use in transportation.

  3. Regarding Gary Dikkers post – the miles driven differential between Minn. And Wis. Drivers data is taken from the DOT and that data is questionable. The DOT does not measure miles driven; they only estimate the VOT (vehicle miles traveled). How they measure VOT is not published anywhere I know of.

    Take a peek at motorcycle fatality data on the DOT web site for insight into how poor their data collection efforts are.

  4. To be fair to the ethanol people, perhaps the standard variable shouldn’t be price. For the environmentalists, it would be the carbon footprint. For many others, it would be amount of foreign oil used.

    For the former, E85 seems to have a near negligible impact. Many of the uneducated environmentalists have no idea how much energy is needed to get our food and its much, much worse when its used for its tiny bit of chemical energy.

    For the latter, it might work but again with a massive price. Even if we’re willing to make great economic sacrifices for that goal, more efficient cars seems a much better use of our resources than ethanol.

  5. While I agree with many things you say about Ethanol, Rob, and that Corn Ethanol is not a viable solution (especially in of itself), I simply cannot believe this guy’s results. My own experience is completely at odds with his. I have worked with several models of flex fuel vehicles (my own and my employers) and I have never had that wide a variation in mileage. My own experience has consistently pegged it at about 15%. The whole comparison is also kind of void for another reason as well–Ethanol’s higher octane rating (~104) means that it will operate at much higher compression ratios than gasoline. If I recall, Saab and Volvo are working on E100 cars that are specifically tuned to run on Ethanol with turbos, higher compression ratios, etc. that would make much better use of the fuel.

    My purchasing decisions on when to use E85 are when the price is ~15% less than current 87 octane gasoline prices, because my widest variation in experience with E85 mileage was about 15%.

    So in short, Ethanol does get less mileage in current FlexFuel engines, I don’t buy his claim of 39% variation unless Dodge did something horribly wrong with that model and it is an outlier. This isn’t a “gut feeling” I have either–my employer keeps stringent records of the fuel receipts, and I am a little OCD about that type of thing myself. Unfortunately, as implied by the pseudonym, I’m not willing to share my data either to back this up.

  6. My 2004 Dodge Stratus (I Drive a Dodge Stratus!) gets 17% less miles on E85 than on Unleaded. E85=2.19 E0=3.15. I don’t know what they did to that Durnago.

  7. I have a 2002 dodge caravan with the 3.3 engine, using regular unleaded I get about 20.4 mpg, using E85 I get about 16.5 mpg not much of a drop but right now in Portland, Oregon I can get E85 for $3.09 or regular unleaded for $4.01 so I buy the E85

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