“Spike in Gas Prices.” “Gas Prices Continue to Rise.” “How to Offset Rising Gas Prices.” “Gas is Liquid Gold.” You have likely seen one or all of these headlines recently. The dramatic rise of gas prices in February/March 2022 has affected Americans across the country. Gas prices have hit record highs, causing financial pain at the pump for millions and leaving millions wondering how to find relief. While it is helpful to reduce the number of monthly miles one drives, there may be a more readily available solution that many aren’t aware of – using ethanol-blended gasoline at the pump.
Ethanol was introduced in the 1850s as a major lighting fuel. While ethanol use declined due to tax hikes, it made a comeback again in the 1970s. Interest in ethanol as a transportation fuel was revived as oil embargoes, rising oil prices, and growing dependence on imported oil increased interest in alternative fuels. Since that time, ethanol use and production have been encouraged by tax benefits and by environmental regulations that require cleaner-burning fuels. Ethanol is produced through the processes of fermentation and distillation. Ethanol is a clear, colorless alcohol made from a variety of biomass materials called feedstocks (the raw materials used to make a product). U.S. fuel ethanol producers mostly use crops with high starch and sugar content as feedstocks for making ethanol such as corn, sorghum, barley, sugar cane, and sugar beets.
There are three general categories of ethanol-gasoline blends: E10, E15, and E85.
- E10 is gasoline with 10% ethanol content.
- E15 is gasoline with 15% ethanol content.
- E85 is a fuel that may contain up to 85% fuel ethanol.
Ethanol-blended gasoline is not only for a select few engines. This blend can be used by:
- All gasoline engine vehicles can use E10.
- Currently, only flex-fuel and light-duty vehicles with the model year of 2001 or newer are approved by the EPA to use E15.
- Flex-fuel vehicles can use any ethanol-gasoline blends up to E85.
Beyond easing the pain at the pump, there are other benefits of ethanol. Because ethanol is mostly a product of processed corn, ethanol production supports farmers and creates domestic jobs. And because ethanol is produced domestically, from domestically grown crops, it reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil and increases the nation’s energy independence. In 2021, ethanol helped protect America’s energy independence by displacing over 500 million barrels of crude oil. Embracing ethanol fuel can save a country a lot of money that can be plowed back into the economy. If our nation moved to a fuel standard of E15, consumers would save $12.2 billion in fuel costs every single year, according to industry expert Growth Energy. By increasing our use of ethanol in just 33% of the country’s fuel supply, we could replace the amount of oil we are no longer trading with Russia.
The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which pose severe environmental and health issues. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, biofuels reduce GHG emissions by 46% compared to gasoline. Additionally, when blended in gasoline, ethanol displaces toxic aromatics, reducing particulate matter, carbon monoxide, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene), and other pollutants that lead to respiratory issues, heart disease, and even death. Ethanol is also responsible for removing the carbon equivalent of 12 million cars from the road each year as it burns more purely.
At the same time, the environmental impacts of producing ethanol have been greatly reduced. Natural gas and electricity use at dry mill ethanol plants has fallen nearly 40 percent since 1995, while consumptive water use has been cut in half. This has occurred while the amount of ethanol produced from a bushel has increased. Producers are getting 15 percent more ethanol from a bushel of corn than 20 years ago. The result? A smaller carbon footprint and an increase in energy efficiency. Overall, ethanol is considered to be better for the environment than gasoline. Ethanol also does not require investing in new infrastructure to deliver results. Liquid biofuels will be needed for the existing stock of vehicles with internal combustion engines and for transport modes where electrification is not an option.
Ethanol biorefineries make more than fuel; they also generate highly nutritious animal feed like distillers grains. One-third of every bushel processed by a plant is used to make animal feed. The low cost and nutritional properties of distillers grains make them one of the most sought-after feed ingredients in the world. Distillers grains have three times the nutrient value of corn. It is an excellent source of protein, energy, and fiber. The energy value of distillers grains equals or exceeds that of corn. Yet, the value of this product is typically between 75 and 90 percent of the price of corn. This price difference makes distillers grains a good value for livestock and poultry feeders. According to the University of Nebraska, the energy value of distillers grains is consistently higher than corn, providing approximately 130% – 150% of the energy equivalent of corn when fed to beef cattle.
Ethanol also helps engines to stay dry. The Renewable Fuels Association notes straight gasoline only suspends .15 teaspoons per gallon of water whereas ethanol-blended gasoline will suspend 4 teaspoons. Ethanol blended fuels will move more water that enters the tank from condensation through the fuel system keeping the tank dryer and causing no harm to the engine if the engine is used regularly.
A common blend used these days is E85 (85% Ethanol and 15% gasoline). The mileage provided by this blend is lesser than that of pure gasoline or the E10 (10% Ethanol) blend. However, the benefit of using the E85 blend is that the oil remains clean for a longer time, there is reduced stress on the engine, and less overall engine maintenance. The cost of lower mileage gets covered up thanks to these small benefits. Not to mention, the overall reduction of your carbon footprint, which is the one benefit of the use of ethanol fuel that everybody should aspire for.
As with many issues around transport and the environment, the solutions are never clear-cut. As we move along the ‘Road to Zero’ there will be those who still have gasoline-driven vehicles and those who have moved to ‘all-electric’. However, every driver should feel confident in using ethanol-blended fuel to help ease the burden on their wallets and on the environment.