It’s still a long and winding road when it comes to developing a clean-burning fuel for vehicles.
In the past year, one of these renewable fuels — E15 — has made headlines.
In E15, the “E” stands for ethanol, an ingredient that comes from corn and is used in making gasoline. The “15” is the percentage of ethanol in the gasoline. Normally, gas stations sell E10 fuel, or gas that consists of 10 percent ethanol. E10 gasoline makes up 95 percent of the nation’s fuel supply.
Ethanol has long been mixed with gasoline in small quantities, and E15 gasoline has been slow to reach gas stations around the nation, with fewer than 20 stations in a total of six states selling E15 gas.
While this new EPA-approved fuel is slightly less expensive, burns more cleanly and is better for the environment, it isn’t without its own set of problems. For example, if a gallon of regular unleaded gas costs $3.50, a gallon of E15 would cost about $3.45. However, increased ethanol content also delivers fewer miles per gallon, so there really isn’t any savings, money-wise, when using E15.
Last summer, the EPA approved the sale of E15 after receiving a waiver request from producers interested in expanding the use of corn-based ethanol. Despite objections by auto manufacturers, the EPA approved the use of E15 gasoline in flex-fuel vehicles and 2001 model year and newer cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty passenger vehicles and SUVs.
For now, fewer than 5 percent of the cars on the road are approved by automakers to use E15. Approved vehicles include flex-fuel models, 2001 model-year and newer Porsches, 2012 model-year and newer GM vehicles and 2013 model-year Ford vehicles.
At least five manufacturers — BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen — have said they will not honor any fuel-related warranty claims on cars that use E15 gasoline. Eight automakers — Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo — have said that if the use of E15 does not comply with the fuel requirements specified in their owner’s manuals, it may void warranty coverage.
“It’s basically an alcohol, and alcohol is corrosive to many of the plastics and the rubber components in the engine and fuel system,” said John Walter, director of automotive repair for AAA Arizona. “Even if it doesn’t void your vehicle’s warranty, there may be more wear and tear on your vehicle. It seems more like a risk than a win.”
Another problem is that many people are unaware of E15. A study last year by AAA showed that 95 percent of consumers have not heard of E15. In addition, nearly half (44 percent) said they did not know if the fuel was approved for use in their primary vehicle.
AAA’s automotive engineering experts believe that sustained use of E15 could result in costly problems such as accelerated engine wear and failure, fuel-system damage and false “check engine” warnings in some cars.
“More testing needs to be done before we can advise motorists that it’s safe to fill their cars with E15,” Walter said.
Recently the Environmental Protection Agency finalized 2013 standards for the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) program. The program requires renewable fuels, such as ethanol, to be blended into gasoline in increasing amounts each year.
Things might change, though. When this was implemented, policymakers predicted that U.S. gasoline consumption would continue to rise, supporting higher ethanol use. In recent years, however, consumption has remained relatively flat because of fuel-efficient vehicles, a weaker economy and changes in driving habits. As such, the agency recently announced that it would consider adjusting planned ethanol increases in 2014 and the years ahead.