E85: The cost of driving green

By Bruce W. Smith

There’s a buzz around the gas pumps about forgetting filling up with gasoline and switching to the cheaper E-85 version.

The price of E85 varies widely from city to city, state to state. But it is generally found to cost about 25- to 30-percent less than regular unleaded. This is attractive to those standing at the pump

Many of those who own one of the new “flexible-fuel vehicles” (FFV)—those that can burn either gasoline or ethanol-based E-85—are taking the lower price for face value and filling whenever they can find a source.

Using ethanol as a fuel is not a new concept. Henry Ford figured out that pure grain alcohol was good for much more than being distributed in moonshiner’s Mason jars. Back in the 1880s he developed a car to run on white lightening and later designed the Model T to run on either ethanol or gasoline.

Vehicle and fuel technology has changed a lot over the decades, but the concept hasn’t. Today’s E85 (http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/altfuel/ethanol.html) is the same basic stuff, fermented and distilled sugars made unfit for human consumption and then mixed with 15-percent gasoline.

But is using E85 actually saving FFV owner’s money? No. It’s actually increasing your annual fuel bill. How much it adds depends on where you fill up.

Although ethanol-based fuels are very, very good for our environment, it’s a terrible power producer (http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/progs/fuel_compare.cgi.) making 75-percent of the energy per gallon as gasoline.

This results in a significant drop in a vehicle’s fuel economy when switching from gasoline to E85. It also adds to operating costs.

For example, a 2006 Chevy Silverado 4×4 FFV V-8 that is rated 15 city / 19 hwy on gasoline only gets 11 city / 14 hwy when using E85. That’s a 27-percent decrease in fuel economy using E85.

A FFV Ford F150 4WD sees a drop in fuel economy from 14/18 to 10/13—or nearly a 30-percent drop in fuel economy. Flex-fuel cars suffer a nearly identical fuel-economy fate.

Where the real cost hits consumers is when the price gap between gasoline and E85 narrows as demand for ethanol grows.

Using E85 adds $200-$300 to the annual operating costs of a vehicle with flex-fuel capability. A year from now that cost could be closer to a $1,000 if the price of E85 is the same as regular unleaded.

How much is a consumer willing to pay to be “green”?  Only time will tell.