Trump waiver for E15 would mean more cost, more challenges for fleets

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Updated Apr 21, 2018

There’s a troubling quote attributed to Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, concerning President Trump’s possible move to bump up the nation’s ethanol mix in gas this summer from 10 to 15 percent.

“We need some good news out here,” Shaw recently told Reuters concerning a possible trade war with China. “The best news (Trump) could give us right now is year-round sales of E15.”

While that might be good news ‘out there’ for corn country, what about fleets and consumers across the U.S. that’ll be stuck with worse fuel mileage should the president cave-in to corn lobbyists? Fuel remains one of the biggest costs for a fleet. Every mile counts.

Ford, for instance, makes it clear on its website that E85 “produces less energy by volume than gasoline. One gallon of gasoline is the equivalent of 1.56 gallons of E85 used to travel the same distance. Due to the increased volume required and the fact that alcohol is corrosive, fuel system components must be upgraded.”

That’s a 56 percent increase in the amount of E85 required to take a Flex Fuel Vehicle the same distance that it will travel on a gallon of non-ethanol gasoline.

Big corn’s proposed five percent increase of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply that Trump’s seriously considering—from E10 to E15—seems pretty benign. But, as the U.S. Department of Energy reports, “vehicles will typically go 3% to 4% fewer miles per gallon on E10 and 4% to 5% fewer on E15 than on 100% gasoline.”

Certainly, ethanol producers would be happy to see the president sign-off on E15. Any business welcomes new sales. But as the ethanol content goes up in the nation’s fuel supply, MPG levels drop and fleet costs rise.

But it’s not just the decrease in fuel economy that Ford describes, it’s the corrosive nature of ethanol that the automaker also says needs to be considered. While Ford’s Flex Fuel Vehicles are engineered to fend off the corrosive attacks of high ethanol content up to an E85 blend, millions of vehicles on the road are not built to run on anything higher than E10.

But, even vehicles rated to run on E10 are still being damaged by the fuel. Stories abound about fuel pumps and gas tanks going bad. I had to replace two tanks, three fuel pumps and one fuel level sensor that were all devastated by rust attributed to moisture that had entered the fuel system through the continued use of ethanol. How did that happen? Simple. Ethanol is hygroscopic.

Even a lower blend like E10 attracts moisture. My son and I quickly found this out by setting out a few jars of E10 alongside jars of non-ethanol gas on our covered patio. In a few days, water was seen collecting in the bottom of the E10 jars while there was none to be found in the non-ethanol samples.

Keep in mind that in Florida our humidity levels are higher, so obviously any moisture tests conducted in drier climates will not be as revealing. But with roughly 21 million people, Florida is the nation’s third most populated state. That’s a lot of trucks and vans. More importantly, that’s a lot of ethanol and moisture that can be introduced into millions of fuel systems. (Read this Popular Mechanics article to learn how moisture can even enter a closed system.)

Regarding the corrosive nature of ethanol, Popular Mechnanics writes:

“I used to recommend storing outdoor power equipment, boats, ATVs and motorcycles with full tanks to prevent rusting. Now I recommend draining the tank, running the engine till it quits and then fogging the inside of the tank and the cylinder with oil to prevent corrosion. No E10 in the tank equals no water absorption and no phase separation.”

That last line says it best, and that’s just E10. If E15 enters fuel systems across the U.S. this summer, expect to see even more corrosion-related issues.

Of course, other concerns pile up concerning ethanol production and use. The primary reliance on corn to create the fuel (95 percent corn-based, according to the U.S. DOE) can impact food prices. Ethanol’s lower emissions are attributed heavily to the fuel’s life-cycle from crop to tail pipe. In other words, the C02 consumed by corn plants used in ethanol production are figured into their lower GHG levels, according to the Department of Energy. That’s fine. It’s this next line from the DOE that concerns me.

“…it (ethanol) increases acetaldehyde emissions, which the National Institute of Health describes as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ and is moderately reactive for ground level ozone formation,” the DOE states on its Alternative Fuels Data Center website.

Lower emissions has been one of the biggest selling points of ethanol. So while we’re being told that CO2 and benzene levels are dropping during ethanol combustion, acetaldehyde emissions are on the rise. Ethanol proponents will argue that the trade-off is more than worth it, but the point is that ethanol emissions continue to generate concerns among environmentalists, including those at the EPA.

“The higher ethanol blend, called E15, is currently banned by the Environmental Protection Agency due to concerns it contributes to smog on hot days, a worry that biofuels advocates say is baseless,” Reuters reports.

Okay, so let’s add everything up: the emissions controversy, plus lower fuel economy, plus the corrosive nature of ethanol do not exactly make it one of the more attractive alt fuels. And yet this government-propped fuel may be getting even more of a boost from President Trump. Let’s hope not.

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