Ethanol

Ethanol

August 6, 2020

I came across a new sales gimmick at our local gas station.  I usually get gas at the grocery where I shop and had just got back from that store (and a trip to the station associated with it).  I had forgotten to bring my gas can and needed to get gas before I could mow.  The gas in town was a little more per gallon, but I figured by the time I drove to the cheaper gas I would have eaten my saving.  I put my can in the truck and headed across the street to another station.

Many might be too young to remember the gas wars local filling stations used to wage.  There were two stations on the corner near my grandfather’s farm and they always seemed to be trying to undercut each other.  Gas was usually around 19 cents, and the lowest I remember was 6 cents.  My dad looked forward to filling up every time we went to see “Clarence.”  These were both independent stations, so they were not mandated to sell at a set price.  This was also prior to the oil embargo in October of 1973, so gas was selling for $3 a barrel instead of the $12 it jumped to by the following year (in contrast to the $43 per barrel today).

The sign on the local station’s pump proudly proclaimed, “Enriched with 10% Ethanol.”  I never thought mixing ethanol in gas was a good thing.  Today’s engines need higher octane to run efficiently and ethanol is a cheap way to raise the octane of a low-grade gasoline.  Much of the biomass used to make ethanol is grown in politically important states like Iowa.  It is no surprise that ethanol in gasoline is mandated by Congress. It started with the 1990 Clean Air Act and by 2019, 14.5 billion gallons of ethanol were mixed into the U.S. gasoline supply annually.

THOUGHTS:  The good news is ethanol is a cleaner fuel than gasoline, and it helps reduce emissions.  The bad news is ethanol has about 33% less energy than gasoline, and at a 10% mix, yields 3% less fuel economy than straight gas.  Ethanol evaporates more than gasoline (a major source of air pollution).  The land and resources (like gas) used to make ethanol are not available for other purposes (like food), and the rain forests are cleared to grow sugarcane.  Corporations, politics, and farming tied together.  Imagine that.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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