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Why we still need alternative fuels when gas is cheap

REUTERS/Whitney Curtis
There is still a strong case for using alternative fuels, even as gasoline prices drop.

Retail gasoline prices in Minnesota are at their lowest in five years, and for the vast majority of Minnesota motorists, that’s very good news. Now that we are paying less at pump, some are beginning to suggest that we no longer need cleaner alternatives to petroleum, or that Americans will soon return to driving more and purchasing big, inefficient vehicles. But there is still a strong case for using alternative fuels, even as gasoline prices drop. 

Here are five reasons Minnesota should stick to alternatives to petroleum:

Robert Moffitt

1. The cost of alternative fuels have dropped, too. The price of all fuels varies widely by location and retailer, but generally speaking biofuels such as E85 and E30 have been priced less than regular unleaded in Minnesota. The owners of flex fuel vehicles have responded to these lower prices, keeping sales strong throughout 2014. In November 2014, more than 1.3 million gallons of cleaner-burning E85 were sold in the state, an increase over the same period in 2013. As the price of gasoline has dropped, so has the price of B5 biodiesel in Minnesota. Virtually all diesel sold in Minnesota is B5, which contains a 5 percent biodiesel blend. During the warm weather months, we switch to B10 biodiesel, a 10 percent blend.

2. We care about our air. Minnesotans are justifiably proud of their clean water and clean air. With more and more drivers and vehicles on our roads, it’s becoming more difficult to keep our air clean and healthy. Many people still don’t realize that the single largest source of air pollution in our state is vehicle exhaust, not smokestack emissions. As federal outdoor air quality standards tighten, we are on the cusp of exceeding new standards for ozone pollution. Fortunately there are some solutions, and Minnesota has already taken some important steps forward. We lead the nation in the number of E85 outlets, and were the first state to require biodiesel blends statewide. We have been building our mass transit and cycling infrastructure, as well as facilities for electric vehicles, and vehicles that run on propane or natural gas. To help keep our air clean and our lungs healthy, we need to continue this progress toward less polluting alternatives to petroleum.

3. We support local businesses and farms. Much has been written lately about the movement to “buy local” in restaurants and shops. These efforts not only help the local economy, they help to better connect consumers to the people and companies that make them. From beer made in a neighborhood microbrewery to locally made clothing and food items, more and more Minnesotans want to buy local. Because Minnesota has no oil wells, we can’t buy our fuels locally – or can we? In the past 20 years, Minnesota has quietly become a major biofuels producer, with the capacity to make more than 1 billion gallons of fuel every year from renewable sources, grown on Minnesota farms. There is a high demand for these cleaner-burning fuels, both at home and abroad. Some plants in Minnesota are now making new types of biofuels – a Navy jet was recently test flown on a type of biofuel fuel blend made from Minnesota corn. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture estimates the industry’s impact on the state’s economy to be $5.03 billion per year.

4. We embrace change — and choices. For most American motorists, they have only one choice of fuel they can use in their vehicles, and it is almost always made from petroleum. For the first time in generations, Americans have more choices. Gasoline or diesel? Hybrid or electric vehicle? Compressed natural gas or propane fuel? Not all of the fuel choices are mutually exclusive. Drivers who choose a flex fuel vehicle can choose E85 or gasoline at the pump. Plug-in hybrids have both gasoline and electric engines. Bi-fuel vehicles can start on gasoline or diesel, then switch to cheaper and cleaner fuels like CNG (compressed natural gas). Those who have diesel vehicles can run on a biodiesel blend in Minnesota, or regular diesel fuel when biodiesel blends are not available. There are more choices than ever, and many are cleaner and more renewable than traditional petroleum fuels.

5. We won’t be fooled again. As a nation, we have seen fuel prices rise and fall. While we are all enjoying low prices today, few of us expect them to last forever. Like an investment portfolio, it makes good sense to diversify our transportation fuels, so we don’t become too dependent – or addicted – to a single type of fuel. America has been successfully reducing the percentage of oil it imports from outside of North America; we can do even better by producing alternative fuels and vehicles in the United States. Minnesota-based Polaris is investing in electric vehicles; Schwan’s has been delivering its products to Minnesota doorsteps in propane-powered vehicles for years. That truck that picks up the garbage may just be powered by CNG, and the postal truck that delivers our mail is running on E85. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go, but one thing is certain: Alternative fuels are driving change in Minnesota. Change for the better.

Robert Moffitt is the communications director for the American Lung Association in Minnesota.

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/11/2015 - 09:05 am.

    Weird

    Environmentists generally oppose ethanol because when all the production is included, ethanol is worse for theenvironment than gas. Its also a huge drain on increasingly scarce water resources and is causing the widespread destruction of wildlife habitat. Now it seems than burning ethanol may actually cause more air pollution, which should be the author’s interest given his employer.

    http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-ethanol-ozone-levels-brazil-20140501-story.html#page=1

    Ethanol is a terrible product that only exists because of mandates and subsidies. Its not clean. Its not even alternative, given the fossil fuels needed to make it. Its just a bad idea, and maybe cheap gas will lead the way to people coming to their senses and abandoning it for good.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/11/2015 - 10:06 am.

      If you are against alternatives to oil, what are you for?

      Most of the traditional petroleum fuels sold and used in Minnesota comes from the Alberta Tar Sands, which is extracted from the earth using fresh water and fossil fuel resources. If you have seen the famous “before and after” photos of the Tar Sands region that National Geographic published, you’ll have some idea what it does to wildlife habitat, too.

      As for ozone, we’re very concerned, but we don’t see ethanol as a primary concern. Ozone is a secondary pollutant (meaning it doesn’t come directly from tailpipes or smokestacks) formed by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide in the presence of sunlight. I spoke in depth about ozone pollution in this article: https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2014/12/minnesota-may-find-new-ozone-standard-not-much-hurdle-all

      Other than the 10 percent blend (E10) in our gasoline, ethanol is not mandated in Minnesota, and federal ethanol subsidies ended years ago.

      We believe that any alternative fuel that reduces tailpipe emissions is a good idea. The fact that it is largely renewable, produced locally and less expensive than petroleum makes it even better.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/11/2015 - 03:57 pm.

        Wrong

        Thanks for the strawman argument, but I’m not against alternatives to oil at all. I’m against alternatives that are worse than oil, such as ethanol. What is happening in the Canadian tar sands is awful. Destroying wildlife habitat in Minnesota as well doesn’t make it any better.

        You may not be concerned about ozone, but actual environmentalists are. At this point, I don’t think you can say that Ethanol reduces tailpipe emissions. It may actually make them worse. And when all the production is taken into account, the carbon footprint from ethanol is far worse than oil, even from the tar sands. As I am sure you know, Jason Hill from the University of Minnesota has done a lot of great work exposing ethanol for the environmental disaster it really is.

        You know very well that while the primary subsidy is gone, billions are still being spent subsidizing the ethanol industry. And people wouldn’t be buying ethanol at all without the 10 percent mandate. All they are getting is worse gas mileage and the slow destruction of their car engines. You can’t run a gas lawmower or anything with a small engine without putting in additive because of the corrosive nature of ethanol. Its an industry that would never have existed without massive government support.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/12/2015 - 10:14 am.

      ethanol

      Using 30 year old information provided by big oil isn’t exactly a good way to prove a point.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/11/2015 - 09:47 am.

    As that great American, Paul Harvey would have said, aaand now…the rest of the story

    Mpls Gasoline: $2.30\gal
    Mpls E85: 1.79\gal
    Price spread 22%

    1 gallon of gasoline ($2.30) = 114,000 BTU
    1 gallon of E85 ($179) = 81,800 BTU
    You need to burn >25% more E85 than gasoline going the same distance in the same vehicle.

    E85 costs you 3% more per mile

    Ethanol production is subsidized by the feds to the tune of $6 billion a year.

    Ethanol damages engines
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/hybrid-electric/a6244/e15-gasoline-damage-engine/

    Don’t be fooled again.

  3. Submitted by thiebr01@luther.edu on 02/11/2015 - 12:18 pm.

    Real alternatives

    If we are going to talk alternative fuels, we need to get away from making fuel from food sources. Ethanol as we know it today is more polluting because it is made from commodities like corn. Most corn is farmed on an industrial scale, which is extremely energy intensive.

    Cellulosic ethanol uses the entire biomass of a plant (such as grass) and is a more realistic solution to be a sustainable alternative fuel source.

    Other sustainable alternatives would move us entirely away from liquid fuels. Electric vehicles can be powered by renewable energy sources, essentially creating zero emissions.

    And, of course, we must not forgot the potential to reduce fuel demand by creating livable communities that support biking and walking and boast smart public transit options.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/11/2015 - 03:26 pm.

      Thanks For Your Comment

      Regarding corn ethanol, you should know that in addition to fuel, Minnesota’s ethanol plants are also producing livestock feed, which is the single largest market for Minnesota’s corn crop. One bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol AND 18 pounds of dried distillers’ grain, a high-protein livestock feed. Some ethanol plants are also extracting an inedible type of corn oil that can be processed into biodiesel. Likewise, only the oil in a soybean is used to make soy biodiesel — the protein and fiber is used for food and a wide variety of products.

      Cellulosic ethanol is exciting, but currently it costs more (due to the additional processing required) to make ethanol from cellulosic biomass than from corn. As a result, Minnesota has no commercial cellulosic ethanol plants. Last year, a cellulosic ethanol facility opened in Iowa that uses some of the stover (leaves, stalks, cobs) left after a corn harvest. The rest goes into the ground as fertilizer, and to secure the soil.

      Yes, smart planning and transit options are very important, as are plug-in vehicles. We’re big fans of those, too.

  4. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/11/2015 - 01:55 pm.

    Your reference to Popular Mechanics (2010)

    is out of date, Mr. Swift. You need to get up to speed and read the following article (2013), also in Popular Mechanics. Apparently they have changed their minds about ethanol.

    Four Things to Know About E15 http://ow.ly/ITKxq

    It will give those interested in facts about ethanol use in automobiles more helpful and balanced information about using it.

    One thing of note:

    “The EPA has certified vehicles in the U.S. fleet made in 2001 or newer, and all Flex Fuel–capable vehicles (able to use up to an 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline mix) as E15 compatible. One study conducted at Kettering University found no remarkable degradation in fuel systems all the way back to 1995 model years.”

    Also, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the use of ethanol in automobiles. You are no doubt aware of the situation in Brazil:

    “There are no longer any light vehicles in Brazil running on pure gasoline.”

    Ethanol fuel in Brazil | UN-Energy Knowledge Network http://ow.ly/ITMia

    Although one might cavil that ethanol fueled automobiles are only possible in Brazil due to their sugar cane resources, the search for sustainable alternative fuels in the US has started with ethanol and continues with other possibilities, notable research having been done at the U of M.

    Finally, your economic argument is a little silly. People will pay a little more for products that they believe to be environmentally safer, at least some of us.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/11/2015 - 03:09 pm.

      Ethanol and Engines

      The racers in the Indianapolis 500 use E85 fuel. NASCAR drivers use the E15 blend. I think it is safe to assume these folks know a thing or two about engines, and which type of fuels work best in them. Personally, I have been using E15 in my 2008 Honda Fit for some time. Runs great on the stuff, and it is priced 10 cents cheaper than regular unleaded.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/13/2015 - 03:24 pm.

        And certainly

        NASCAR drivers are concerned about the number of mile per gallon that they get. And that they change out engines slightly more often than us little people…

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/11/2015 - 04:15 pm.

      Ethanol

      I would pay a little more for products that are environmentally safer. Unfortunately, with ethanol I am forced to pay more for a product that is worse for the environment.

      You should actually look at the ethanol research coming out of the U of M:

      http://hill.cfans.umn.edu/publications/

      Here is an article by professor Jason Hill summarizing why ethanol is so bad for the environment:

      http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/165781776.html

      As Hill points out, there is never going to be a switch to plants other than corn. This was a handout for corn farmers, and for awhile people got duped into thinking that it was good for the environment.

      I hate to say it, but Mr. Swift is right about this one.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/12/2015 - 08:35 am.

        I am afraid that we have to disagree, Dan,

        about Mr. Swift being right on this one.

        If it were up to Mr. Swift NO steps would be taken toward research on sustainable alternatives to straight gasoline. That was really his only argument – that economically such things are more expensive. Now we can argue about environmental impact, but whether it is ethanol or switch grass – or something else – it is a fact that people (most of us) will pay more for a product that we believe to be more environmentally friendly.

        You’ll note also in some of my other comments that I have given citations to work at the U of M and to facts – see the Audubon article cited – about why ethanol is probably not the way to go, ultimately. In that respect, I agree with you.

        But we have to start somewhere, and I think that the ethanol experiment has given us a lot of information about where we need to be going. I look at it as a first step toward real sustainability.

        Thanks so much for your comments, though. This is the kind of discussion we should be having about environmental problems and sustainability. Nice to have a forum on MinnPost.

      • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/12/2015 - 10:19 am.

        research

        I’m going to have to disagree even though you provide much information. Oil and gas is nothing but poison for the earth in my opinion and switching to something we can grow and re-use can only be better for the earth. Ethanol used as an oxygenate is much better than the poisons that were previously used. There is more to think about.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/11/2015 - 04:20 pm.

      One more thing

      With regarding to damaging engines, its not the Popular Mechanics has changed its mind. Its that newer cars have changed to adapt to the corrosive fuel. Among the points contained in the article you cite:

      – don’t put ethanol in your car if its old because it will damage the engine.
      – don’t put ethanol in your lawnmower without putting in fuel additive or it will damage the engine.
      – carmakers won’t pay for warranty repairs for some vehicles damaged by ethanol.

      Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/12/2015 - 08:25 am.

        Not a ringing endorsement, Dan.

        But at least the second popular mechanics article does a good job in pointing out what is involved in using ethanol in your car unlike the first one, that just said no.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/12/2015 - 07:43 am.

      EPA says ethanol is good to go? Super. Manufacturers, well not so much. From your link:

      “But the main issue is whether or not your vehicle will be covered under warranty for any damage caused by E15 usage, and in many cases the answer is no. GM and Ford have certified their own vehicles starting with the 2012 and 2013 model years, respectively, so some brand-new cars will have no trouble at all.”

      In addition to being incompatible with many of the synthetic compounds used in gaskets, and seals. Alcohol is hygroscopic (I’d have figured a chemist would know that); it bonds readily to water. Water is intrinsically bad for combustion…has no place in the combustion system of a car, nor does it do much good in fuel systems.

      So, if you want to pay more per mile for fuel, you should buy a brand new car to burn it in. Or, to address Bob’s suggestion regarding NASCAR, you can rebuild your engines every 500 miles as they do.

      Corn is great with butter and salt. Makes the best tortillas. But corn alcohol is best used with ice and Coca-cola.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/12/2015 - 10:15 am.

        I am glad that you and I finally agree, Mr. Swift,

        that problems with ethanol in the fuel system can be circumvented:

        “GM and Ford have certified their own vehicles starting with the 2012 and 2013 model years, respectively, so some brand new cars will have no trouble at all.”

        And of course I have already pointed out in these comments that no light-weight vehicles in Brazil use straight gasoline any more. Perhaps their engineers are more skilled than ours?

        And yes I do know about hygroscopic material. And you have misused the term “bonding” above. The important thing to realize is that water and ethanol as a binary system azeotropes. As a ternary system water/gasoline/ethanol have different properties but I will leave their properties to your research if you are interested.

        I’ll also point out that old Minnesotan’s used to put “Heet” in their gas tanks to overcome “gas line freeze” which occurred when the cold temperature made the water in gasoline (yes, indeed, there is some) solidify out. And what is Heet? Why a relative of ethanol. Namely, isopropyl alcohol.

        You might want to think about the solubility of water in gasoline that contains ethanol.

        Things never are as simple as you seem to make them, Mr. Swift.

        • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/13/2015 - 03:27 pm.

          And because of the ethanol

          The fuel ATTRACTS more water in storage which is why you don’t want to leave a tank of it in your mower, snowblower, chainsaw, etc. for any length of time.

  5. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/11/2015 - 02:08 pm.

    Mr. Thiel is correct

    The Virtues of Switchgrass as an Alternative Fuel | Audubon http://ow.ly/ITOki

    “Help could come from research conducted by the University of Minnesota’s David Tilman and colleagues. They’ve found that if degraded agricultural lands were planted with a diverse mixture of prairie species, including western wheatgrass, big bluestem, and little bluestem; vascular plants such as sundial lupine and rounded-headed bush clover; and forbs such as rigid goldenrod and tall blazing star, the energy yield could exceed that from switchgrass alone by more than 200 percent. “Our research shows that biofuels made from a diverse mix of prairie plants can eliminate about 15 to 25 percent of the global warming problem the world faces,” Tilman says. At the same time, these cultivated prairies would feature greater biodiversity, providing even better habitat for many animals.”

    Dave Tilman’s research at the U of M has Norman Borlaugesque possibilities. For published research, please see:

    Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass http://ow.ly/ITPIz (Nature)

    Climate change and health costs of air emissions from biofuels and gasoline http://ow.ly/ITPT8 (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science)

  6. Submitted by Jeffrey Broberg on 02/11/2015 - 08:13 pm.

    Corn ethanol threatens our water and ALA doesn’t care?

    Corn for ethanol is polluting our surface water and groundwater with excess nutrients. Every place in Minnesota where corn dominates the landscape the rivers and streams are polluted with nitrates that we drain to the Gulf of Mexico to create a hypoxic zone the size of Maryland. In SE Minnesota and the Central Sands the constant nitrogen inputs used to grow corn on corn has polluted our groundwater. The farmers don’t care, agribusiness promotes wasteful practices, the regulators can’t do anything to stop them because of the exemptions in the laws, and the Legislators are paid off by the Farm Lobby. We’re screwed! The best thing we could do to save our water quality would be to ban ethanol!

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/12/2015 - 10:22 am.

      ban

      Ill conceived comments should be banned not ethanol. What did we use for an oxygenate in gas prior to ethanol? It was poison for mankind and the earth. Ethanol is better. I also think you exaggerate a little. Yes there is pollution but improvements are being made. Studies are showing that some of the pollution we are currently seeing is coming from 15-30 years ago and is not necessarily a result of todays practices. Relax, farmers do care because they drink the water and need to eat too.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/15/2015 - 11:04 am.

    Frankly….

    This article is kind of bizarre coming from a public health perspective. More E85? How bout applying the same emission standards to big trucks and semi trucks? Right now some trucks are emitting the equivalent of 150 cars worth of smog, and we have a lot of truck sitting in slow moving rush hour traffic. We could even re-route trucks around the cities unless they’re actually delivering within the cities. How bout we build all of our light rail and street car lines at the same time instead of building them piecemeal? Commuter rail to Duluth and Rochester? Better bike infrastructure? Congestion pricing? There are a lot of things we could do to reduce smog, E85 is not the best choice for a variety of reasons already discussed.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/18/2015 - 08:33 am.

    Yes to the title…

    Not so much on the content of the article. Still, the picture of the giant fireball in W. Virginia the other day from the oil train wreck is just a tiny sliver of proof that we need to move away from fossil fuels. The fact that there’s an oil pipeline leak or explosion several times a year is another sliver. The high incidence of allergies and lung ailments in high pollution locations is another.

    I think that biofuels still have a future, but not corn ethanol. It’s always been foolish to convert food to ethanol. It might be further foolish to commit more food acreage to fuel production, even if it is switchgrass, but I’m not sure on that one.

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