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Consumer Reports: E85 Offers Cleaner Emissions, Poorer Fuel Economy

Fuel unlikely to fill more than a small percentage of U.S. energy needs

YONKERS, N.Y. -- Tests and an investigation by Consumer Reports magazine conclude that E85 will cost consumers more money than gasoline, and that there are concerns about whether the government's support of flexible fuel vehicles is really helping the U.S. achieve energy independence.

Findings from the consumer watchdog magazine's special report include:

E85 emits less smog-producing pollutants than gasoline, but provides fewer miles per gallon, costs more and is hard to find outside the Midwest. Government support for flexible-fuel vehicles, which [image-nocss] can run on either E85 or gasoline, is indirectly causing more gasoline consumption rather than less. Blended with gasoline, ethanol has the potential to fill a significant minority of future U.S. transportation fuel needs.

To see how E85 stacks up against gasoline, Consumer Reports put one of its test vehicles, a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe Flexible-Fuel Vehicle (FFV) through an array of fuel economy, acceleration and emissions tests. Overall fuel economy on the Tahoe dropped from an already low 14 miles per gallon (mpg) overall to 10 mpg. In highway driving, gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 mpg to 7.

A similar decrease in gas mileage would be expected in any current FFV because ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline75,670 British thermal units (BTUs) per gallon instead of 115,400 for gasoline, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As a result, the vehicle would have to burn more fuel to generate the same amount of energy.

With the retail pump price of E85 averaging $2.91 per gallon in August, according to the Oil Price Information Service, a 27% fuel-economy penalty means drivers would have paid an average of $3.99 for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

When Consumer Reports calculated the Tahoe's driving range, it found that it decreased to about 300 miles on a full tank of E85 compared with about 440 on gasoline. So, motorists using E85 would have to fill up more often.

Most drivers in the country have no access to E85, even if they want it, because it is primarily sold in the upper Midwest; most of the ethanol in the United States is made from corn, and that's where the cornfields and ethanol production facilities are located. There are only about 800 gas stationsout of about 176,000 nationwidethat sell E85 to the public.

When Consumer Reports took its Tahoe to a state-certified emissions-test facility in Connecticut and had a standard emissions test performed, it found a significant decrease in smog-forming oxides of nitrogen when using E85.

Despite the scarcity of E85, the Big Three domestic auto manufacturers have built more than five million FFVs since the late 90s, and that number will increase by about one million this year. A strong motivation is that the government credits FFVs that burn E85 with about two-thirds more fuel economy than they actually get using gasoline, even though most may never run on E85. This allows automakers to build more large, gas-guzzling vehicles than they otherwise could under Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules. As a result, these credits have increased annual U.S. gasoline consumption by about 1%, or 1.2 billion gallons, according to a 2005 study by the Union for Concerned Scientists.

From an alternative-energy perspective, it doesn't matter whether ethanol is blended as E85 or in lower mixes such as E10 (a 10%/90% ethanol/gasoline mixture) that all cars can burn; a given amount of ethanol still goes just as far in reducing demand for gasoline. Experts agree that the maximum amount of ethanol you can get from corn in the United States is about 15 billion gallons. But scientists are working on producing ethanol from other plant material, called cellulose, which could increase this capacity by as much as 45 billion gallons. (For comparison's sake, the U.S. burned 140 billion gallons of gasoline in 2005.)

Consumer Reports concluded that the important backdrop to the ethanol debate is that petroleum is a finite resource that's rapidly being depleted. Government scientists are planning for a day when world oil production peaks and begins to slow. They say the country must begin planning for alternatives 20 years before that peak. Today ethanol is receiving their attention because it requires fewer technological breakthroughs and less infrastructure development than batteries or fuel cells, and by including cellulose, its capacity can exceed that of biodiesel.

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