Navigant Research Blog

Ethanol Growth Lies in Optimization, Not Mandates

Scott Shepard — January 31, 2014

The last 2 years have been punishing for the ethanol industry.  In August 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) revised the treatment of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) under CAFE standards so that manufacturers will no longer receive credit for FFV sales beginning in 2017 if they cannot provide data proving E85 (gasoline with up to 85% ethanol) use by the FFV.  Then, in November 2013, the EPA proposed a reduction of an estimated 3 billion gallons of biofuels blending quotas for 2014 under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  Additionally, while the EPA has approved the use of E15 (gasoline with up to 15% ethanol) in model year (MY) 2001 vehicles and newer, major automakers have been hesitant on the fuel, in some cases approving its use only in MY 2012 vehicles and/or newer.  As a result, there are few stations that supply E15.

All of these setbacks mean that the market for ethanol in the United States has peaked at 10% of retail gasoline consumption and has flatlined in recent years.  Additionally, Navigant Research forecasts in a forthcoming report, Biofuels for Transportation Markets, that retail gasoline consumption will fall before 2022 thanks to increasing fuel economy standards and interest in alternative fuel and light duty diesel vehicles.

Despite ethanol’s recent tribulations, though, there are opportunities for sustainable growth.

E30 = $

A report developed by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) finds that the use of E30 (gasoline with up to 30% ethanol) can significantly improve vehicle efficiency in optimized engines, compared to a conventional internal combustion engine fueled with regular gasoline.  Efficiency gains are achieved through the high-octane properties of ethanol, which improve combustion, thus mitigating engine knocking and allowing for greater downsizing of the vehicle engine.

The findings are important because they identify an opportunity for ethanol to become an economic product for end consumers.  To date, E85 has failed to catch on in the United States because the fuel shows no significant improvement in reducing fuel costs due to the lower energy density of ethanol compared to that of straight gasoline.  While there are currently many FFVs on U.S. roads, on average FFV drivers rarely fill up with E85.  Reasons include a lack of available infrastructure and low driver awareness.  However, those reasons would evaporate if the cost of driving on E85 were significantly less than driving on E10.  If the latter were the case, E85 compatibility would be a more valuable selling point for automakers than it is now, consumers would be well aware of the cost savings, and demand for E85 would be robust and drive infrastructure development.

If it’s true that an ethanol blend above 10% can improve fuel efficiency given the right engine, then the cost savings to the end consumer will spur growth in a market that has stagnated.  Realizing this opportunity, though, requires significant buy-in from automakers that would have to develop the optimized engines and the assurance that fuel retailers will have the optimized blends available.  Those factors will likely require government support.

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