How We're Getting Off Oil

By Bill Moore

Posted: 22 Nov 2009

If there were a subtitle to this commentary, it might be "How we're guaranteeing future generations will have access to oil while helping ensure that America doesn't have to send its young men and women overseas to protect distant oil fields and foreign petrocracies."

How are we doing this? You're looking at a photo of one of our initiatives: a 1998 Chevrolet S10 pickup truck. It's our replacement for our 2000 Honda Insight Hybrid, which has been sold to a reader in Newfoundland, Canada.

Say what? Moore, are you nuts? You're replacing a 60 mpg hybrid with something that gets what, maybe 18 mpg?

Actually, I don't think I've come unhinged. Here's my logic, such as it is.

The Insight gets around 50-55 mpg in stop-n-go city driving here in Omaha on E10, or 90% gasoline and 10% locally-produced ethanol. Every 50 miles I drive, I consume 9/10th of a gallon of petroleum, some 60% of it imported from overseas at a cost of hundreds of billions dollars flowing out of our economy annually. 1/10th of that gallon comes from US-produced ethanol; and yes, I am quite aware of the issues regarding both the merits and demerits of corn-based ethanol production, but what's two wars costing us economically and environmentally?

Chevrolet built a number of flex-fuel S10s between 2000 and 2002, so our 1998 model isn't one of them... yet. There are kits available that allow owners to convert vehicles like our S10 to run on E85, and while one or two are approved for certain models by the EPA, most are not, largely because the developers haven't had the money to run extensive and expensive emissions tests on scores of different engine configurations for the EPA, something the feds should be doing themselves if they're serious about promoting the use of E85 in our current vehicle fleet. That hasn't stopped tens of thousands of Americans from ordering the kits and adapting them to run on this home-grown fuel; and in some cases, home-made fuel.

So, at some point in the not too distant future, I am liable to wake up one morning and find the Ethanol Elves have installed one of those conversion kits on this little emerald green jewel. And if they have, what can I expect to happen? First off, the fuel economy of the vehicle is likely to drop, that much is largely a given, though I have read there are some tweaks that you can do in the way of better spark plugs, etc. to improve the performance of the engine on ethanol. After all, a number of racing organizations use ethanol in their vehicles, the most notable being Indy Car.

More importantly, the ratio of gasoline to ethanol that I will be burning dramatically shifts with 85% coming from U.S. distilled ethanol and only 15% from gasoline, of which only 9% would then come from oil imports. Assuming a 1/3 drop in fuel economy means the S10 running on E85 might drop to around 12 mpg. Now to drive the same distance as the Honda Insight on a single gallon of fuel will take 4.5 gallons of E85. That's a lot of fuel, for sure. I am not doing this to save money, folks.

But let's do the math. Of the 55 miles I drove on that gallon of E10, which would better be labeled G90, 49.5 miles were on gasoline and 29.7 of that was on imported oil. Or put another way, 0.9 gallons of the fuel to drive that 55 miles came from petroleum and 60% of that, or 0.54 gallons, came from oil imports.

In contrast, despite such incredibly poor fuel economy on E85 (and I am only guessing here since finding actually MPG figures on this vehicle with its 4.3L Vortec engine running on E85 with a 4-speed automatic transmission are hard to find), the amount of imported oil I would burn is actually less.

To drive the same 55 miles in the S10 will take 4.5 gallons of E85, but only 0.67 gallons of that is gasoline and only 0.4 gallons of that came from imported oil. So where the super-efficient Honda Insight running on E10 would burn .54 gallons imported oil to drive 55 miles, the far less efficient S10 running on E85 would use only 0.4 gallons of the same imported oil over the same distance. So, even at a miserable 12 mpg, we are getting the equivalent of 67.2 mpg if we were burning straight gasoline.

There are 5.6 times more ethanol in a gallon of E85 as there is gasoline (85/15 = 5.6). 12 mpg times 5.6 = 67.2 mpge

Of course, it's possible to do even better once I have the resources to proceed to phase two, which is to convert the S10 to some form of electric drive; S10's are really nice platforms for doing this, though having the automatic transmission on this vehicle poses challenges. And then our 2009 Prius with the Plug In Conversions Corporation kit allows us to drive 18-20 miles every day using even less petroleum. So, far this month, I estimate we're getting close to 70 mpg average, with many days well over 100 mpg. It's looking like we may have to refuel the car only once every 6 weeks or so, and there is now an E85 conversion for the Prius.

Between shifting to American produced electric power and locally produced ethanol, we're doing our darnedest to reduce the amount of petroleum we personally consume, leaving a small share of it in the ground for future generations, while helping create market pull for less-oil-dependent transportation technologies.

It's not a perfect plan, by any means, but I believe its a stab in the right direction.

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