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Steve Hansen The lighter side: Corn-fed cars add up to a big load of bologna

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 8:00 am, Wed Aug 10, 2011.

"There's bad news and good news about your new pickup truck," the salesman told me. "The bad news is that it's not going to get the gas mileage of a Chevy Volt. The good news is that it will run on the cheaper 'Flex Fuel.'"

There are just a few stations in the area that offer this corn-based, E85 ethanol. One is in a small community just outside of Stockton. It has a billboard that advertises this government-subsidized fuel for about 60 cents per gallon cheaper than the same quantity of fossil-based regular.

"Hummm," I thought to myself. "If my new pickup averages 14 mpg, and if I do the math correctly, that's around a 15 percent savings. If gas is four bucks per gallon, that would be the equivalent of raising my average gas mileage to approximately 16 mpg."

I drove a few miles to get to this "in-the-middle-of-nowhere" station. My logic was sound: If it helped the environment and prevented drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, then the trip was worth the effort. I guess we could call the few extra pounds of emitted pollution needed to get to this E85 location, necessitated "collateral damage."

I drove under the yellow Shell sign and stopped at the "green" aisle. I was feeling pretty smug, knowing that my actions were saving the planet. With my nose in the air, I watched the other poor suckers paying much more for their fuel.

One guy filling his old Crown Victoria turned to me and said, "Don't you realize it takes six times more energy to make E85 than the finished product actually contains?"

I ignored the comment. I mean, how could our government leaders, with their well-informed wisdom, invest our money into something that was completely counterproductive?

As I headed down the road, I turned off the screen on the average mileage calculator. I wanted to be surprised at my next fill-up.

The following week, I pulled into the same station. I imagined all the wilderness caribou that would not have to hop over oil pipelines — thanks to the miracle of corn gas.

This time, a different comment came from the next aisle. "Corn prices in the grocery store have sure gone through the roof since they started making that stuff," the middle-aged woman opined.

"OK," I said, "but isn't it worth it if we can save the Earth for future generations?"

"Besides," I thought, "the taxpayers are paying billions to subsidize this product. Taking advantage of the situation is certainly acceptable in my rulebook."

I couldn't wait to see the difference on my fuel calculator. I clicked it on with anticipation and great hope.

"9.8 MPG AVE," the screen displayed.

"There must be a mistake!" I thought. "I'll fill up again for next week and see what happens."

This time, it was 9.6 mpg! A check of the owner's manual recommended E85.

"Do your part for the environment," it proclaimed.

On that same day, my monthly issue arrived from the nation's leading consumer magazine. It revealed the following: "When we've tested E85 (85 percent ethanol) we've seen about a 30 percent drop in fuel economy compared with E10."

After billions in borrowed money subsidies, skyrocketing food prices, and increased oil consumption to produce this alternative fuel, E85 still costs more than going to my local Cheap-E-Mart for regular, everyday gas!

So, I have to ask the obvious question: What's Washington's next move to save those cute, cuddly polar bears?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and satirist.

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  • Doug Chaney posted at 8:03 am on Wed, Aug 17, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    Kevin, you seem pretty well schooled on the drug, marijuana? Do you?

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 9:58 am on Fri, Aug 12, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    See, the war on drugs just needs more hemp.

    Have you seen the industrial uses for hemp? The stuff is amazing. Apparently there are a couple car makers looking to replace plastic components with hemp substitutes to make their cars more green. BMW is one of them.

    IF, and that is a big if, Hemp were ever embraced by the American lawmakers then it could open up whole new fields (excuse the pun) of revenue for some people. Even small acreages 5-10 acres can be profitable hemp fields. Hey, if it was good enough for George Washington then its good enough for me. Bring on those wooden teeth.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 9:00 am on Fri, Aug 12, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Kevin... I was clueless about hemp vs pot... you educated me... I did a search and found this article... how does this get by without the press reporting... hard to believe...

    A new bill from San Francisco state Sen. Mark Leno seeks to authorize an eight-year, five-county pilot project to grow fields of hemp, marijuana’s sober cousin. But fields of industrial hemp can actually ruin marijuana crops, stuff like Blue Dream, Grand Daddy Purple and Sour Tsunami.

    “The [possible] passage of Sen. Leno’s hemp bill is not good news for California’s medical marijuana industry,” explained Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, in an email. He explained that hemp pollen can contaminate other cannabis plants, in some cases 100 miles away.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 7:37 am on Fri, Aug 12, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    Not to mention Mellow yellow would make a resurgence as a car color.

    Just a side not to completely derail the humor. In order to get the same amount of high from hemp as you do from pot you would need to be power smoking way more joints than are physically possible. Hemp and Marijuana are in the same family but different species. Kind of like wheat and grass. From what I was reading pot growers actually don't like hemp since it lowers the drug potency in their plants when the two are cross pollinated (like by bees). I don't know how reliable it is but the article said that pot growers usually move aways from hemp operations to maintain the drug potency of their plant. Plus the two plants are grown differently. Hemp is grown to maximize fiber in the plant where pot is grown to maximize the buds of the flower.

    No back to our regularly scheduled mocking of a plant that has been used by society for 3000 years.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 6:14 am on Fri, Aug 12, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Kevin Paglia posted at 1:16 pm on Thu, Aug 11, 2011.

    FYI: Just another reason why hemp should be legalized in the US

    Yes, at least the cars would have something to smile about...so even on a hot day, it will be cool.

  • Rudy Schwartz posted at 3:40 pm on Thu, Aug 11, 2011.

    Rudy Schwartz Posts: 5

    It's always surprising how ignorant people can be about the technologies they use, especially when they go on to write opinion columns on the topic.

    Even the tiniest bit of reading about E85 would have told you that the miles per gallon observed would be reduced.

    And corn is far from the most efficient way of producing ethanol, but it's Americas sweetheart crop and will likely be here forever.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 1:16 pm on Thu, Aug 11, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    FYI: Just another reason why hemp should be legalized in the US.


  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 10:14 am on Thu, Aug 11, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Finally, the Food vs. Fuel argument is a myth...

    This may or may not be true.. but what is not a myth is that if the government gets involved and makes decisions based on politics instead of merit, many times the consumer gets sold a bill of goods.

    Mr Hansen... I very much enjoyed reading this particular article as it makes obvious the folly of believing what you hear ( especially from government sponsored studies)without independent substantiation, experience and evidence.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 3:11 pm on Wed, Aug 10, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    It may still be a few years off but A better efficient engine is already out there.


    I'd be willing to bet there are even more of these in development right now. The next five years could be flooded with ethanol friendly engines.

    Personally I'd still like to see a car maker make an electric car that has solar charging panels on it's surfaces to prolong the distance.

    I'd still like to see this http://www.twike.com/ in America dealerships. I'd buy one of these for getting around town.

  • Darren Johson posted at 2:23 pm on Wed, Aug 10, 2011.

    Darren Posts: 1

    My name is Darren Johnson and I work for Growth Energy, an ethanol advocacy group. I want to highlight some important facts that didn’t make it into Mr. Hansen’s piece and quickly combat some of the ethanol prevalent myths.

    Mr. Hansen fails to point out the incredible costs of our nation’s addiction to foreign oil Every year that addiction costs our nation $300 billion. Increasing access to higher level blends of ethanol will reduce the role that foreign oil plays in our economy and keep more dollars in the U.S. economy where it can create U.S. jobs. Ethanol is cleaner than gasoline refined from oil, and it is cheaper. In most areas across the country, ethanol is at least $1 cheaper per gallon than gasoline, making it incredibly cost effective as a fuel, even at higher blend rates like E85.

    Finally, the Food vs. Fuel argument is a myth. The U.S. ethanol industry uses just 3 percent of the global grain supply on a net basis. The real costs of putting food on the shelf are transportation, processing and packaging – all costs driven by oil.

  • Jay Samone posted at 10:21 am on Wed, Aug 10, 2011.

    Jay Samone Posts: 359

    I don't particularly care for Mr. Hansen's articles, but in this case I agree. Around 6 years ago, PBS aired a Frontline (I believe) about Brazil and the sugar cane vehicles. Because Brazil is not bound by "Big Oil" and "Big Auto", they were able to create a sustainable fuel by using sugar cane. It is cheap and renewable as well as safe for the environment. The bonus to this? American automakers MAKE THESE CARS HERE and then ship them to Brazil for their use. the US could easily have this technology and be completely independant from "Big Oil", yet I imagine the lobbyists in Washington would shoot to kill if something like this were ever mandated. I attached a link to a very interesting article about another role the US played in slowing down alternative fuel progress - we levied a 54 cent tax on it. Just another way to attempt to control alternative research and production.


  • Kevin Paglia posted at 7:28 am on Wed, Aug 10, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    I support more efficient engines more than E85. Some show a much better combustion efficiency that will make the vehicles go farther on an average tank. Something like this http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42460541/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/t/new-engine-sends-shock-waves-through-auto-industry/ Though I have post other designs in the past.

    In addition as the Ethanol is used more then engines that are more compatible with it's energy style MAY increase the fuel efficiency issue. Unfortunately for this to happen sooner rather than later there needs to be a customer base, but there won't be a customer base until the flaws are worked out.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 7:22 am on Wed, Aug 10, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    An interesting read and I was inspired to read more. http://www.edmunds.com/fuel-economy/e85-vs-gasoline-comparison-test.html

    Just two sidenotes: First is the repeated harping on the subsidies the corn growers got for the plant making the gas. Guess what, all that does is balance the playing field since gas companies get them as well. I disagree with either getting them.

    Second, in both Steve's case and the Edmund's test a truck was used to. Consumer reports did the same thing, compared a truck but not lighter cars. A big heavy, already gas guzzling truck. I wonder if results would be better for lighter cars? I wonder if Motorcycles may have different results.

    In case someone doesn't read the article, the reason for the decreased mileage is that there is a reduction in potential energy from the E10 to the E85. Less energy means less explosive power from the fuel to drive the vehicle forward. Hence my curiosity in lighter vehicles using the fuel more efficiently. The Tahoe used in the tests weights in excess of 4500, some models over 5500 pounds. A smart car 1600, the average motorcycle about 700, scooters even less. So they don't need as much power to reach the same speeds.

    I have never said e85 is good for everyone. But I do suspect that there is a balance point somewhere where the lower weight and the lower potential energy load of the gas meet in harmony.


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