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Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on The Daily Weekly.

Gasohol Binge

I frequently drive a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan. It has over

230,000 miles



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I'm Not Gas Huffing, I'm Just Curious

DSC01589.JPG
Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on The Daily Weekly.

Gasohol Binge

I frequently drive a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan. It has over

230,000 miles on it and is going strong. (Who says Americans don't build good

cars?). It's referred to as a minivan, but it's a nice big car that's served as

the Flipper tour van, hauled large quantities of flowers to markets, and

carried around three large dogs and a Pomeranian with ease.

After owning the rig for several years, I was pleasantly

surprised to discover that the van is capable of using E85 fuel. I thought that

Flex Fuel vehicles were a very recent innovation. In fact, Flex Fuel has been

around for quite a few years. Auto manufacturers build them to receive benefits

for complying with government Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

When oil was over $150 a barrel and consciousness spread regarding the geopolitical

costs of foreign oil, automakers started to tout their products' Flex Fuel

capability.

E85 fuel is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

Ethanol is made from homegrown American corn and other crops. The gasoline

ratio helps the car engine with issues like cold-starting. Recently I happened

to drive by a gas station offering E85. (There are only six such stations in Washington.)

I had only a quarter-tank of regular gasoline left, so I decided to give the

alternative fuel a shot. I read the owner's manual first, and things looked

good!

The price was about 50 cents a gallon less than regular unleaded. I also did something I hope others didn't notice--I took a sniff of the nozzle! I wasn't gas huffing (I swear!), although it might have seemed so to any onlooker. Unfamiliar with ethanol, I was only curious about the fuel. It seemed to have no scent--no, I didn't get a head rush! I filled up the tank with a little over $20 worth of E85.

There was no loss of power, and driving seemed no different. But as I continued down the road, I noticed the average mpg on the overhead computer start to drop. At fill-up it read 22 mpg, then steadily went down to 17 mpg, where it stayed. The E85 was 25 percent cheaper than regular gas, but the van's mpg decreased by 25 percent. E85 contains less energy than gasoline, so you need to burn more fuel. I've also read that E85 does better in an engine that runs exclusively on the fuel. But there are only 1900 gas stations in the U.S. that sell E85, so the Flex seems more practical. At least for now.

There are other hidden trade-offs. A lot of energy goes into producing E85. The fuel is dependent on large-scale agriculture, with chemical fertilizers and the energy required for machinery. In addition, farmland used for fuel means less used for food.

Ethanol is supposed to produce less pollution than gasoline. And unlike petroleum, ethanol is derived from renewable resources like sugar and corn. Advocates argue that the technology will only improve when the basic source of the fuel is cellulosic material like corn stalks, wood chips, and other waste products. And this is just the beginning.

I'll probably run E85 again when I'm near a station that sells it - that's not going to happen but every few months. But I feel like I'm doing my part to explore alternatives to fossil fuels. If we all keep an open mind about alternative fuels, and aren't afraid to experiment with new solutions, maybe someday the Caravan will run on water (hydrogen). And the only place I'll be sniffing alcohol will be from a cocktail glass.

Transportation: Next Week - Novoselic On Mass Transit

 
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