From Sea to Shining Sea on E85

by Mark Pike

At the State of the Union address this year, President Bush diagnosed our country with chronic petroleum syndrome. “America is addicted to oil,” he said. The symptoms have been immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s words, Nat King Cole’s lyrics, and Tom Cochrane’s crooning “life is a highway, and I want to ride it all night long.”

I headed out on the highway this summer to take part in an American rite of passage – the cross-country road trip. Some buddies and I decided we wanted to see a few baseball games, pick up hitchhikers, lose money in Las Vegas and burn a whole bunch of oil.

But then we realized we’d have no money leftover for Vegas, as our budget would inevitably be destroyed by the rising cost of gasoline.With prices at the pump averaging over $3 this summer, there was no way we could afford the trip from sea to shining sea. And after a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth,” we knew we had to figure out some other way to cruise across the country that would be cleaner and more responsible.

“Is it possible to drive coast to coast on ethanol?”

We scoured over AAA guides, called truck stops, and meticulously mapped out our route to see if we could make it to the Pacific. America has over 175,000 gas stations, yet only approximately 1,000 of them have E85 pumps. That means that less than one percent of all gas stations provide consumers with a blend of 85 percent American-made ethanol and 15 percent oil.

Shortly after Sen. Barack Obama endorsed our fantastic voyage and implored the audience to “give it up” for us at the 2006 Campus Progress Conference, we found out that our first planned stop in Morgantown, WV had run out of E85 for the evening. We detoured to one of the two public stations in Pennsylvania selling E85, and continued westward from there.

Cruising in a Ford Crown Victoria flex-fuel vehicle decked out in  “Kick the Oil Habit” bumper stickers and “Powered by Ethanol” signs from our supporters, commuters everywhere honked enthusiastically and gave us thumbs-up. Elected officials, like Gov. Jim Doyle, former Sen. Tom Daschle, and Gov. Tom Vilsack, offered us travel tips and words of encouragement along the way. I guess they appreciated the fact that we were leaving less than one-third of the emissions behind in their states than we would have left with fossil fuels. And we appreciated the fact that E85 was selling for as low as $2.39 a gallon.

At a farm in Nebraska, we learned about new-patented technology that creates a closed-loop system on an ethanol farm, meaning that no energy is wasted in production. One of the biggest criticisms about ethanol as a fossil fuel alternative is that it currently uses more energy to create than it actually produces. That might be the case at many facilities now, but it will not always be so in the future, as the technology improves and adopts some of the innovations we saw in Nebraska.

And the technology will improve.

As crude oil quickly approaches $100 per barrel (while gas prices have decreased recently, they will rise yet again), Americans are looking for a more economically feasible alternative, and ethanol will be just one of many solutions. Biofuel technology has only just begun to be developed and impressive breakthroughs are quickly being made that will drop the production price well below $1 per gallon. According to Vinod Khosla in “Wired” magazine, scientists are developing methods of increasing output from corn using genetic modifications, and they’re even developing technology using cellulosic materials like switchgrass and other carbon-based waste. At the farm in Nebraska, we saw cow manure being converted into fuel. And that’s no bull!

But, I imagine the majority of Americans aren’t interested in the mechanics of why corn produced ethanol produces between 20 percent to 50 percent more energy output than it takes to produce. And, most Americans are probably not interested in the biomass yield per acre for ethanol production, and how scientists predict a fourfold increase in coming years. And they’re especially not interested in the boring scientific details and statistical comparisons of energy plant production between corn ethanol and gasoline. What Americans are really interested in are the basic questions.

“Is E85 cheaper than gasoline? If so, can my car run on it?”

At every fill-up station we visited on the road trip this summer, E85 was selling for less than gasoline; sometimes by as much as $.30. Most brand new cars can handle a simple conversion that makes them flex-fuel enabled – capable of running on E85 – with the installment of a small computer device for as little as $35. Many consumers have also enjoyed the fact that E85 fuel increases horsepower by about 5 percent (but watch out for the speed traps in Kansas).

With answers like that to the consumers’ cost-conscious questions, it’s just icing on the cake that ethanol is cleaner for the environment and better for our national security. Ethanol produces less than one third of the emissions of gas and the fact that it’s renewable makes Mother Nature pretty happy. And increasing American’s energy independence from the Middle East means that maybe prices at the pump and availability won’t depend on the good will of foreign dictators.

But the big question still remains: “Is it possible to drive coast to coast on ethanol?”

As we glided through the Rockies, it became increasingly clear that it would be impossible to continue hopscotching from station to station without using reserves. The distances between E85 stations were approaching 400 miles and we didn’t want to let down everybody vicariously traveling with us via our travel blog. We purchased several spare red tanks in Denver to carry in our trunk and topped them off at a gas station in Laramie, Wyoming.

A few miles from the Wyoming-Utah border with our fuel gauge indicating “Empty,” we pulled over to the side of the road. “Is it possible to drive coast to coast on ethanol?” It appears the answer is “Yes – but…”

For now, you need a big trunk and lots of spare tanks. You need to plan your route in advance and call ahead to make sure the fill-up stations exist and have their shipment of E85. You need to not gamble all of your fuel money in Vegas on 21 Red, and you definitely need not get lost in Death Valley.

If we could make it, anybody can.

 

Mark Pike is a guest contributor to The Online Review.  He is currently a J.D. candidate at the William & Mary School of Law. He graduated from Duke University (’04) with a degree in Public Policy and most recently was employed at the Center for American Progress as a member of the Online Communications team. The Center for American Progress Action Fund provided funding and support for the Kick the Oil Habit Road Trip.

Email Mark Pike at mapike@wm.edu

 

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