GM E85 presentationEnlarge Photo
Despite millions of dollars of commitment from automakers like Ford and General Motors, finding somewhere to fill your flex-fuel car with E85 is now officially harder than finding somewhere to recharge a plug-in car.
In fact, according to Bloomberg, the number of electric car charging stations in the U.S. outnumbers E85 filling stations by two to one, despite a total of 7.6 million flex-fuel vehicles on U.S. roads today.
But if so many automakers have now embraced flex-fuel technology, why are there fewer than 2,500 gas stations in the U.S. that offer E85? And what does it mean for the future of biofuels?
Ethical issues for ethanol
Around the world, most ethanol is produced from either corn or sugar cane.
Although around 95 percent of all E85 is produced from domestically-farmed corn, some academics question the ethics of producing fuel from food crops when the world’s population is struggling to feed itself.
FlexFuel badge on E85-capable 2009 Chevrolet HHR
FlexFuel badge on E85-capable 2009 Chevrolet HHREnlarge Photo
Moreover, in countries like Brazil -- where rainforests are being illegally cleared to make way for more biofuel crops -- the demand to grow biofuel crops is having a detrimental effect on indigenous flora and fauna.
And for some religions, there’s even ethical questions that suggest using Ethanol-based fuels is nothing more than a sin.
Subsidies, import protection to end
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Senate voted to end subsidies for the production of ethanol in the U.S, killing the 45-cents-per-gallon ethanol blending credit that farmers and ethanol producers had been able to claim.
At the same time, the U.S. Senate ended the 54-cents-per-gallon import duty on ethanol imports, making it cheaper to import E85 from outside the U.S.
Sadly, importing ethanol means facing the same problems as buying foreign oil, including being subjected to massive price fluctuations, not to mention facing the number of political and ethical challenges associated with buying ethanol from countries like Brazil.
In short, ethanol has become a political hot potato.
E85 station in Los Angeles
E85 station in Los AngelesEnlarge Photo
Cheaper, but less energy
This summer, the price of corn-based ethanol prices reached a three-year high, driven in part by a lower-than-expected corn harvest yield.
Secondly, E85 contains less energy per gallon than gasoline. As a consequence, anyone driving a flex-fueled car on E85 will discover that they can’t travel as far on a full tank, meaning they’ll have to fill up more often.
And that’s the double-whammy. When ethanol was considerably cheaper than gasoline, people didn’t mind filling up more often if they could get substantial savings. But with E85 becoming increasingly expensive, flex-fuel drivers are happy to use gasoline instead.
Flex-fuel cars: no range anxiety
As the name suggests, flex-fuel vehicles can use gasoline, E85, or a mixture of the two as fuel.
2009 Chevrolet HHR E85
2009 Chevrolet HHR E85Enlarge Photo
As a consequence, there’s no onus on the car driver to fill up on E85. And unlike plug-in car drivers who have to plan their longer trips to include somewhere to charge up, flex-fuel drivers just stop whenever they come across a gas station, regardless of which fuel is sold.
In fact, until carmakers started labeling them with "FlexFuel" badges and fitting bright yellow gas caps, hundreds of thousands of drivers of such vehicles had no idea they were driving a car that could run on anything other than gasoline.
For a Flex-fuel driver, finding somewhere to refill that sells E85 isn’t a prerequisite of making a long-distance trip, while electric car owners need to find somewhere to recharge for trips beyond the range of their car.
Do you drive a flex-fuel car? How often do you fill up on E85, and how often do you fill up on gasoline?
Let us know in the Comments below.