(Listen to the story here.)
Right now, it costs me about $50 dollars to fill up my gas tank. If the price of regular unleaded gasoline goes up a penny, say from $4 dollars to $4.01, it might cost me 50 dollars and some change. But what if you’re gassing up nearly a quarter of a million vehicles?
“To the postal service, that’s an additional $8 million dollars a year in expenses, for just one penny.”
Postal service spokesman Mark Saunders says the agency’s gas bill is likely to top $2.3 billion dollars this year. So when you operate the world’s largest civilian fleet of vehicles, you want to squeeze every bit out of every gallon.
So the postal service bought about 40,000 flex fuel vehicles. They can run on gasoline or a gasoline-ethanol blend called E85. It’s 85% ethanol, which is mostly made from corn. It does burn quite a bit cleaner than regular gasoline. But recently the postal service weighed the costs and benefits of using E85. And they found that, first, it’s hard to find. Only about one percent of filling stations actually carry it. Second, Saunders says the service found it’s less efficient than gas.
“Right now gasoline seems to be, when you look at miles per gallon, versus the cost of E85, gasoline still tends to be a more economical means of purchase.”
A gallon of ethanol has about two thirds the energy content of a gallon of gas. Basically, that means you have to fill your tank more often if you’re running on E85. Triple A reports that it’s cheaper than gas. But E85 actually costs much more when you factor in fuel efficiency. And with floods devastating the corn crop of the nation’s biggest corn producing state, Iowa, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association predicts the price of ethanol will only climb as resources grow scarce.
So for now, most of the postal service’s flex fuel vehicles are running on gasoline until they can find a fuel that’s affordable as well as efficient.
Department of Energy biofuels scientist Zia Haq says the best alternatives will likely not come from corn.
“We are not doing any R&D on corn ethanol technology, but we think the second generation of cellulosic ethanol technology is indeed sustainable, because it utilizes waste materials like corn stover and other agricultural waste as well as forest residues.”
Haq says the Department is working on developing engines that make better use of ethanol, as well as finding ways to pipe it to more regions of the country. But for now, the future is in E10. That’s a gasoline and ethanol blend which is already in about half the nation’s gas supply, including here in Jefferson County.
Iowa State agricultural economist Chad Hart says E10 is more efficient, and actually helps the pocketbook.
“The existence of the ethanol industry reduces your, when you go to the gas station, reduces your cost by say 30 cents a gallon.”
Hart says that using E10 in all the nation’s gas supply would require about 14 billion gallons of ethanol a year. Right now, we’re producing about half that. But he says using that much ethanol won’t be enough to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.
The federal government has targeted roughly 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. Ethanol and an E10 blend cannot get you nearly that far. So you have to look at how are we going to go beyond E10, what sort of blends are we looking at, or what sort of new biofuels might we be looking at in the future.”
Hart says ethanol is no silver bullet. It takes a lot of resources to grow corn. And it’s still not as efficient as gas.
“What we’re figuring out, with ethanol, with biofuels, like almost everything in life, there are trade-offs. And I think with biofuels they were sold as being our way to get ourselves off of foreign oil and move ourselves along to energy independence, and that’s a very tall order.”
An order, Hart says, that will require many alternative fuels and conserving energy.