Biofuels pumpPeople buying new cars are asking if they should get a high mileage hybrid that runs on gasoline, or a flex-fuel vehicle that could run on E85 ethanol. The United States DOE’s and EPA’s, made it easy for car buyers to compare choices.

When you drive, there is most likely ethanol in your fuel tank. Ethanol is a fuel from a plant source that is normally mixed with gasoline. The percentage varies widely. All current U.S. vehicles can run on a blend of up to 10% ethanol (E10). GM launched a national campaign, “Live Green Go Yellow.” GM and Ford (F) have sold millions of flex fuel vehicles (FFV) on the road. GM is prepared to make up to half its vehicles ethanol capable by 2012.

Although FFVs are hot sellers in the USA, most have never had a drop of E85 in their tank. They are only fueled with standard gasoline blends. There are over 6 million vehicles on the U.S. streets that could run E85. Most never have.

Most FFVs are fuel guzzlers; fueled with E85, they are corn guzzlers. In 2007 the best rated car running on E85 was the Chevrolet Impala, with a United States EPA mileage rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway when fueled with E85. For a typical U.S. year of driving, the annual fuel cost would be at $1,657 and 6 tons of CO2 would be emitted by this FFV when running on E85.

By contrast, the EPA rating for a Toyota (TM) Prius running on gasoline was 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway. The Prius would have an annual fuel cost of $833 and only emit 3.4 tons of CO2, compared to 6 tons from the most fuel efficient E85 offering.

A big problem is that ethanol cuts miles per gallon by about 27%. The energy content of E85 is 83,000 BTU/gallon, instead of 114,000 BTU/gallon for gasoline. Even by 2030, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that only 1.4% of ethanol use will be E85. The vast majority will be for small percentage blending with gasoline.

The EIA forecasts that ethanol use will grow from 4 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2030 (about 8 percent of total gasoline consumption vs. today’s 2%). Ethanol use for gasoline blending grows to 14.4 billion gallons and E85 consumption to only 0.2 billion gallons in 2030. In other words, agriculture will be a big winner without any need to spend millions of tax dollars funding E85 stations.

There is a heated debate about whether ethanol helps the environment. In the U.S., the vast majority of ethanol is processed from corn. There is no current environmental benefit if the source-to-wheels use of ethanol includes diesel farm equipment, fertilizer from fossil fuel, coal produced electricity, diesel delivery trucks hauling ethanol over 1,000 miles to refineries, and then fueling a vehicle with poor mileage.

The amount of U.S. corn that became ethanol exceeds 20 percent. The Corn Growers Association says that by 2015 a third of all the corn grown – or 5.5 billion bushels – likely will be for ethanol. Food prices have increased.

World Watch Institute warns “Conventional biofuels will be limited by their land requirements: producing half of U.S. automotive fuel from corn-based ethanol, for example, would require 80 percent of the country’s cropland.” Thus, large-scale reliance on ethanol fuel will require new conversion technologies and feedstock.

A broad coalition is more enthusiastic about cellulosic rather than corn ethanol. Ethanol and other biofuels can be made from a wide range of plant fiber and waste. Currently corn kernels are more easily processed into fuel than cellulosic corn stover, but new enzyme technology can change that. Future stalk for ethanol may include prairie grasses, Miscanthus, Poplar, Willow and algae. Cellulosic sources could produce ten times the yield per acre of corn.

Cellulosic ethanol could account for all 14.6 billion of forecasted consumption, and even more, without needing special E85 pumps. It could all be blended with existing gasoline and fueled into current and future gasoline vehicles. Such blended cellulosic ethanol creates major opportunities for farmers in the United States and the world. It is incremental business, rather than business that competes with existing food business.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has concluded that with “an aggressive plan to develop cellulosic biofuels between now and 2015, America could produce the equivalent of nearly 7.9 billion barrels of oil per day by 2050. That is equal to more than 50 percent of our current total oil use in the transportation sector and more than three times as much as we import from the Persian Gulf alone.”

Increasingly biofuel will not be made from food; rather it will be made from sources such as waste, grasses, fast growth trees, algae, and biotechnology.

Fueling all current high-mileage cars with E10 helps reduce global warming when the ethanol is from cellulosic sources. Putting E85 ethanol in a vehicle with poor mileage does not help. It does not even help the nation with energy independence.

Until flex-fuel vehicles offer the same high mileage as many current cars, do not buy a FFV. The FFV will not help your pocketbook, the nation’s energy security, nor will it help the environment. When you buy your next vehicle, get high miles per gallon.