Just this month, a gas station in Lawrence, Kansas became the first in the nation to offer e15. E15, or Ethanol 15, is a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline. It’s meant to be an alternative that would eventually replace the e10, or 10% ethanol blend, that has become ubiquitous across the United States.
The station’s owner, Scott Zaremba, has a unique pump that allows customers the ability to choose the blend they would like to pump. He also offers an 85% ethanol blend for “flex-fuel” vehicles. These cars can run on blends of ethanol and gas up to 85% ethanol depending on what is available. While “flex fuel” is still a relatively new concept in the automotive world, there are some 9-12 million on the road today.
NASCAR races last week were designed to promote the new e15 blends with the “American Ethanol 200” races. But a series of legal and bureaucratic delays have kept e15 out of the reach of most consumers. Currently, ethanol in the US is produced almost entirely from corn. In Iowa for example, the ethanol industry purchases some 60% of the corn supply.
The goal was to substitute out corn ethanol for more ‘advanced’ biofuels once the market was up and running. But the technology for widespread production of cellulosic ethanol, made of plants or parts of plants that aren’t used for food, is still years away from being marketable.
And this year’s drought is not helping, with corn crops across the country dying on the fields in blistering heat. As a result, corn prices are rising which may effect the overall economic feasibility of increasing corn ethanol blends in gasoline. And there are fears that some of the ethanol producing plants will close as a result of economic pressures.
When Obama first took office in 2009, e15 was slated to roll out to the mass market shortly after. It took two years for the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the blend and then another year to write the rules regarding sales.
Now different kinds of pressures block the widespread use of e15. Some blame big oil for blocking the fuel because they don’t want to give up another 5% of the market. In addition, certain areas can’t pump e15 during the summer because it isn’t compatible with the unleaded blends that comply with clean air regulations. (Source: EPA)
And perhaps most surprising, there has been an overall 2-3% drop in gasoline use in the US. Attributed primarily to a lagging economy and more fuel efficient vehicles, this drop in demand has hurt the market for ethanol fuel blends.
The fate of e15 ethanol remains uncertain. While its clear that we need to wean off of fossil fuels, a variety of short term solutions, such as ethanol fuel blends, are still vying for their share in a highly competitive and rapidly changing marketplace.
To read more about the drop in demand for gasoline, check out our previous post here.