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E85 – What You Need to Know

3rd December 2009

First, please understand that this isn’t a scientific journal, nor an economics one. This is an automotive website, so this discussion will only talk about E85 as it pertains to cars and driving. I will not discuss whether E85 is artificially cheaper because of government subsidies (it is) or whether or not the production of E85 from corn takes food away from people (I don’t know). I only want to briefly educate you about the pros and cons of buying a car that can use E85 and what you can expect when you do use it.

E85 is the abbreviation for fuel that is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. No vehicles for sale in the US can run on ethanol alone. You need at least that 15% gasoline. Vehicles that can run on E85 can run on any ethanol/gasoline combination with at least 15% gasoline. That’s why they’re called flex fuel vehicles (FFVs). You can fill up on E85 one day, then regular gasoline the next time without any problem. Flex fuel vehicles are more expensive to build than “regular” vehicles because of the special components that can withstand the corrosive nature of ethanol. There are only 2211 stations that sell E85 in the US, which means that most vehicles capable of running on E85 never do. So why do the automakers build them? They get CAFE credits for offering the FFVs, even if they never use E85 (can you say “loophole”?) and you get to feel good aboutmaybe helping lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

So what’s the difference when you use E85 instead of gas? The first thing you’ll notice is that E85 tends to cost less, though not always and the amount varies. e85prices.com says that the national average price is $2.22/gallon, while regular gasoline is $2.57/gallon. Great, right? Not so fast, my friend. Because of the differences between the fuels and the engine design compromises made to allow the engine to use either fuel (or any combination of them), using E85 results in lower fuel economy versus using gasoline in the same vehicle. The Slandy Report analyzed the differences in the EPA rating of every FFV sold in the US and found that the rating is approximately 27% lower for E85 use than for gasoline. We also found that the average range of a tank of gas is also more than 100 miles less on E85 than for gasoline, so you would need to refuel more often. When you combine the lower prices of E85 with the lower fuel economy, E85 still comes out more expensive by 16% compared with gasoline. In other words, gas is 16% cheaper than E85 if you look at cost per mile.

So why buy an FFV? Some things are not easily quantified in dollars, like the foreign oil point made above. While E85 is more expensive to use than gas, you will use 79% less gasoline per mile driven than if you use gasoline. Corn is also a renewable source, so theoretically, we would never run out. Buying an FFV vehicle is a matter of choice, of course, and so it the decision to use E85 instead of gasoline. You now have some real-world facts that will help guide your decision.

That’s what I think – how about you? Please leave your comments below.

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