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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Ethanol Gas

Updated on September 12, 2018
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Chris has a love for learning and often this comes from verifying statements and claims from other consumers, news, and/or individuals.

What Is Ethanol Gas

Ethanol is in most gases pumped at the gas station. There are ethanol free gasoline pumps, generally marketing to boating and/or racing. E10 would be the most common gasoline or gasohol in the United States, and this would be a mixture of gasoline and with no more than 10% ethanol.

E85 is commonly termed flex-fuel and is where most of the controversy appears to come from if ethanol is good or bad. E85 is a blend of gasoline and ethanol. Although it is commonly stated that the percentage of ethanol is the number after the "E", E85 can be a blend of gasoline and ethanol that ranges between 51% to 83% depending on the season and location. There are other mixture options, but these are the three most discussed. Let's take a look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about ethanol gas.

Your Stance on E85

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The Good About Ethanol

There are some great things to be said about ethanol. Several of these are as follows:

  • Renewable
  • Lower Green House Gas (GHG) Emissions
  • Production Margin
  • Reduced Engine Wear
  • Lower Cost Per Gallon

Ethanol is Renewable

One of the biggest and most positive things about ethanol is that ethanol is a renewable resource. In the United States, corn is the main biomass used to create ethanol. Brazil uses sugar cane to create ethanol and was the a pioneer country in the use of ethanol for motor fuel according to sugarcane.org. Brazil also produced 8 billion gallons of ethanol in 2015/16 compared to the United States production of 15.8 billion gallons in 2017.

In 2017, the United States produced just under 409 tons of corn. Which was down down 4% from the previous year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The price of ethanol decreases as more countries produce more. India and Thailand have helped produce a surplus that mills in Brazil are closing because they can't afford to produce ethanol with the current pricing. This has also decreased the cost of E85. In California, E85 was $3.11 per gallon in 2009 and the national average in 2018 is $2.17 per gallon.

Reduced Green House Gas Emissions

In January of 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released information stating that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 43% compared to conventional gasoline. With more reductions in regards to greenhouse gas emissions expected with advancements in cellulosic ethanol. A great advantage for this renewable resource.

Ethanol Profit Margins

It is reported that ethanol profit margins even after the ethanol tax credit ended in 2012 is still profitable. On March 6th, 2018 the U.S. Energy Information Administration stated that ethanol has a margin of 22¢ per gallon at the end of 2017. This was the fifth consecutive year of record breaking ethanol productions. Which indicates more efficient processes because there was a 4% reduction in corn production in 2017. This could be because of the cellulosic ethanol made from the fibrous parts of the plant, such as the stalks.

Ethanol Reduces Engine Wear

In regards to heat, ethanol reduces wear on the engine because of the higher octane ratings create more efficiency. E85 has ranges between 94 to 105 in octane rating. The higher the octane level the more compression to detonate and keep the pistons moving and resist ping and knocking.

Lower Price Per Gallon for E85

In 2009, Edmunds.com tested E85 versus standard gasoline. At this time, E85 was $3.09 per gallon and standard E10 was $3.42. In 2018, the national average as reported by E85prices.com is $2.17 and standard E10 is $2.849 as AAA reports. Meaning that since 2009 pricing for E85 has dropped by 29.78% and E10 has only dropped 16.7% in price. And in comparison against each other in 2018, E85 is about 24% cheaper than E10. Meaning that you will be paying more for ethanol to go the same distance as with gasoline.

Why E85 Isn't More Popular

With all of these good things about ethanol, why isn't the movement to E85 larger than it currently is? The U.S. Engergy Information Administration stated, "that in 2017, the 142.85 billion gallons of finished motor gasoline consumed in the United States contained about 14.39 billion gallons of fuel ethanol, equal to about 10% of the total volume of finished motor gasoline consumption." Let's look into "the Bad" about ethanol.

The Bad About Ethanol

There are good aspects to ethanol, but there are many negative sides to this fuel too. Several of the negative affects of ethanol are as follows:

  • Increased Corn Prices
  • Increased Toxin
  • Lower Fuel Economy
  • True Production Costs and Projections
  • Nitrogen Pollution

E85 Increases Corn Price

There are many who will argue that the price of corn has increased because of the production of ethanol but as the Agriculture Marketing Resource Center shows there is a increase in pricing simply due to supply and demand. This could be off-set in the future with more efficient cellulosic ethanol processing, but currently most every cellulosic ethanol processing plant has closed or claimed bankruptcy with only a couple still operating today. With an increase in feed corn pricing, the price of meat would increase as well as all down-line products of feed corn.

Increased Toxin From E85

One note on research about ethanol fuel slashing emissions, 95% of ethanol in the United States is made from corn feedstock and although only 5% of the ethanol is created from other sources many quotes are used in regards to the cutting of emissions based off switchgrass ethanol.

Ethanol does have an increased tailpipe emission of acetaldehyde. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorized acetaldehyde as a carcinogen. Acetaldehyde is moderately reactive for ground level ozone formation to occur as well, which means it makes smog.

A study discussed by Scientific America has data based upon air quality monitoring systems in Brazil in which there was a large shift to gasoline from ethanol and there was a significant drop in ground ozone levels.

An interesting study that was referenced earlier was completed by Edmunds. This study tracks a drive from San Diego to Los Vegas, 667 miles round trip, and shows the following:

Dan Edmunds stated,

"By relating our observed fuel economy to CO2 emission figures found in the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide, we determined that our gasoline round trip produced 706.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. On ethanol, the CO2 emissions came to 703.1 pounds. The difference came out in E85's favor, but only by a scant 0.5 percent. Call it a tie. This is certainly not the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we had been led to expect."

Lower Fuel Economy With E85

Kiplinger states that E85 would need to be more than 30% cheaper than E10 to break even with cost per mile. Skeptics will generally question if the offset of emissions is actually an offset after the same mileage has been expended. I do believe there is still a mild improvement as shown by the Edmunds study. Consumer Report released an study as well and the following is a data summary:

Nitrogen Oxide can combine with oxygen to create nitrogen dioxide and form smog and acid rain.
Nitrogen Oxide can combine with oxygen to create nitrogen dioxide and form smog and acid rain.

True Manufacture Costs of Ethanol

Studies have been released that ethanol production is profitable, a report released by U.S. Energy Information Administration reports a margin of 22¢ per gallon. In regards to the true cost, is the global impact that allocating more corn toward ethanol than helping the world markets.

Extension.org states that one acre of corn will produce 423 gallons of ethanol. An average acre of corn produces 100 bushels and there are 56 pounds of corn per bushel. So 5,600 pounds of corn to make 423 gallons of ethanol. In 2016, there were 5.28 billion bushels of corn used towards making ethanol or just over 295 billion pounds of corn. A list of plants is located at the Nebraska Energy Office, listing nameplate capacity although there is no evidence of any hitting the nameplate capacity. There have been very few years that projections have been accomplished in regards to ethanol fuel production over the last decade.

Nitrogen Pollution

With a push for ethanol, there is a push for more corn. Corn needs nitrogen for development, application for nitrogen is after pollination and around when the 8th leaf is developing. The bad side of this is that nitrogen also help algae grow and to degrees that in an aquatic setting will kill fish in mass.

What happens is that nitrogen run off enters the water supply and drains into lakes. Collecting and helping algae grow and multiply. The algae consumes the oxygen in the lake making it lethal for lake inhabitants. This has occurred in Ohio in the Western basin of Lake Erie and is now monitored continually.

The Ugly Truth About Ethanol Gas

The ugly truth about ethanol gas is that is has become a political vehicle that has created another issue for the world. Driving corn prices up is good for farmers, it gives them a multiple prong financial option on what to do with harvested corn, the down side to this is that increasing corn prices affects the world market when it comes to feeding animals, the production cost of meat, and hurts developing countries financially.

With developments in technology, there will be improvements with ethanol and gasoline alike. The quickest improvement will be the fuel efficiency standards for 2025. These standards may be frozen by Trump, but overall these standards of bringing the miles per gallon (mpg) to the equivalent of 54.4 mpg would help cut our footprint more than ethanol usage with even the most optimistic forecasts of improvements.

With the genie out of the bottle, ethanol will not be going any where any time soon. But with ethanol we are trading in a portion of our problems for a portion of new problems. The real focus should be on automotive standards improving miles per gallon. This is help every aspect of this debate, and that is the only solution to help every aspect as well.

Want to find out more about ethanol fuel blends in your vehicle. Read "Is Ethanol Free Gas Good For Your Car" to find out more about one of the biggest questions that get asked.

© 2018 Chris Andrews

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    • m-a-w-g profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Andrews 

      4 months ago from Ohio

      Switch grass is more efficient to convert ethanol and has lower emissions than corn ethanol. The newer technology in the converting, not in using switch grass. Corn uses nitrogen mainly, which is harmful to aquatic environments. I am with you, but the biggest advantage would be that for the ag industry and driving price up...and the drive for cellulosic ethanol that no one seems to be able to make profitable.

    • hardlymoving profile image

      hardlymoving 

      4 months ago from Memphis, TN

      Don't think switch grass is newer technology. It's so much cheaper to produce than corn that there's a conspiracy to avoid using switch grass. With corn, you have to use fertilizer (which helps out the fertilizer providers), produces less ethanol yield (which keeps the petroleum industry happy ... if ethanol were super cheap to produce, we'd be at 15% blend with less gasoline) and keeps the ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) folks happy since they don't want everyone to become switch grass providers driving prices down. The whole premise behind ethanol blending was for reducing US dependence on foreign oil. Now that the US is a oil exporter, where's the argument for blending ethanol outside of the green friendly fuel bs argument?

    • m-a-w-g profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Andrews 

      4 months ago from Ohio

      With newer technology with the switchgrass, the whole cycle from planting to emissions is better. I didn't mention small engines, because that is a different story than vehicles. The Edmunds study showed that the final amount of pollution was only .5% different. I do have to admit that I am not a fan of ethanol.

    • hardlymoving profile image

      hardlymoving 

      4 months ago from Memphis, TN

      Let's all stop green house gas emissions so we can all live in a green environment? But wait ... green house gas is CO2 isn't it? Don't plants and trees love CO2? But wait ... don't humans and other animals produce and exhale green house gases? What about all the fuel expended by farmer equipment to produce this green friendly ethanol? So now the food industry now has to complete with the energy industry for corn? Isn't switch grass a better crop for producing ethanol? My car get less MPG's with ethanol blended fuel. So I have to burn more fuel to get to my destination than before? And what about ethanol fuels that love to absorb moisture ... messing up the carburetor jets on all my lawn equipment ... every year?

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