Commentary: Good news at the ethanol gas pumpAl JuhnkeBemidji Pioneer - 12/21/2007
There hasn't been much good news at the gas pump of late, but a recent study that showed mid-range ethanol blends - fuel mixtures with more ethanol than E-10 but less than E-85 - can in some cases provide better fuel economy than regular unleaded gasoline offers hope to drivers everywhere, but particularly here in Minnesota.
The study, which was conducted by the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center and the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research at Minnesota State University, Mankato, flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which contends that because ethanol produces less energy per gallon, it also produces lower fuel economy.
However, the study indicated that there is an "optimal blend level" of ethanol and gasoline at which non-flex fuel cars will get better mileage that is higher than previously thought. Results from the study seem to point at a mix between 20 and 30 percent ethanol. In addition, the study also found that mid-range ethanol blends reduce harmful tailpipe emissions. (You can access the full study at http://www.ethanol.org/news
Certainly, this is just one study and more research needs to be done to pin down the optimal blends for the average vehicle and flex-fuel models. However, it does show that Minnesota was wise in pushing for the use of ethanol and gasoline blends in the state.
It also shows that the sometimes hysterical opposition to ethanol as an enemy to performance has been vastly over hyped. If anything, this report indicates that modern automobiles can operate efficiently using higher blends of fuel.
This is important, not only in our efforts to wean ourselves off of foreign sources of oil, but also in strengthening the rural economy. It makes a lot more sense to send the dollars we spend to power our cars and trucks to local farmers and ethanol producers here in Minnesotan than to unstable and often hostile regimes overseas.
There are some steps we need to take to make that a reality. First, the federal government needs to support research on the use of higher ethanol blends so that consumers have the information they need to make informed choices when they decide what they’re going to put in their gas tanks.
The feds then need to allow those higher blends to be sold throughout the country. This fall, the Midwestern Legislative Conference - I currently serve as co-chairman of the MLC's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee - called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move quickly on states' requests to use ethanol blends other than E10 and E85. The Minnesota Legislature, for example, has approved an E20 mandate that cannot take effect without federal approval.
Finally, we need to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to allow consumers to purchase automotive fuel with higher blends of ethanol. As we’ve found with E-85, one of the major obstacles to people using higher ethanol blends is the lack of pumps. We currently have a program in place that helps retailers and distributors increase the number of E-85 pumps across the state, and that has dramatically increased access to E-85 fuel.
In the upcoming legislative session, we’ll be looking at a similar program for blender pumps, which would allow you to set the "dial" for the optimum gasoline-ethanol mix for your vehicle. Right now, there are just three blender pumps in the state. Increasing that number will be key to increasing the cost-effective ethanol choices Minnesota drivers deserve.
We've been told for years that there's not much we can do about the cost of gasoline in this country. However, this study demonstrates that cost-effective and efficient alternatives to foreign sources of oil are available. We just need to seize those opportunities.
Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, is a member of the Minnesota House and chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Committee and co-chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee of the Midwestern Legislative Conference.