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Apr
23

The Prius Deception – Part II

[Note: when I refer to hybrid I am referring to gasoline/electric hybrid technology unless otherwise stated]

In my last postabout hybrid vehicles, I explained why I believe that the auto-buying public, especially in the US, is being hoodwinked about the advantages of such cars at the expense of having better solutions, using current technologies, made available to it. In that post I discussed how diesel-driven cars already offer significantly better fuel economy in many parts of the world without the downside of the size, weight and cost of large batteries required to propel a hybrid car and that the fuel needed for these vehicles is available in this country this year.

In this post, I’m going to discuss E85 fuel. Again, this is a currently available technology in the US that is relatively unknown by the auto-buying public.

First though, I need to reiterate – in no way am I saying that hybrids are bad or that no one should buy them. In fact, they’re great vehicles, in general. To be sure, there are genuine perceived reasons for buying the current generation of hybrid automobiles. Key among these are:

  • Saving money because they require less gasoline
  • Consuming less of the diminishing fossil fuel resources of the planet
  • Creating fewer ozone destroying, lung clogging bad emissions on a per mile basis
  • Feeling good because it’s the “right thing to do.” 

If the last of these is your reason for purchasing a hybrid vehicle, do not pass go and ignore the fact that two hundred dollars could be yours.  Get to your nearest Toyota dealer and put your name on the long list of those who want an underpowered car with real-world mileage far below what the EPA endorses.

While doing this, though, recognize that hybrids won’t save you money.  When you actually sit down and do the math, you’ll find that the money you save by buying less fuel takes years to balance out the higher purchase price of the car.  Add to this that the useful life of today’s batteries is only about 6 years and that they’re very costly to replace (chances are that it will take you almost 6 years to save enough money to offset the higher purchase price of the car) and you’ll quickly realize that hybrids have nothing to do with saving money. 

In terms of fewer emissions, hybrids do a good job.  It’s the reuse of energy created during breaking and coasting that does it.  Less fuel gets burned so less garbage is blown out of the exhaust pipe.  Any technology that facilitates such reuse is good and this is where batteries and electric motors excel.  Any reasonable fuel substitute in the future needs to provide this type of fuel regeneration to fully take advantage of the inertia of the vehicle.

If your goal is to import less black gold from the mantle under the Middle East, then hybrids are a puny step.  This is where E85 fuel offers a better solution than today’s hybrids. 

E85 fuel is 85% ethanol.  In the US, this ethanol is created using corn and various grains distilled into a liquid usable by vehicles for propulsion.   While this mixture still contains 15% gasoline, the majority bio-fuel component reduces gasoline consumption by huge amounts.  For example, using EPA numbers for both vehicles, a GMC 4WD Yukon SUV uses 133 fewer gallons of gasoline a year than a Toyota Prius (based on driving 15,000 miles per year).

E85 is also cleaner burning than gasoline, with lower CO2 emissions.  At the same time, E85 fuel provides more horsepower and torque in identical engine configurations.  Since ethanol increases the octane level of the fuel (105 octane like the good ol’ days), there is no need for the MTBE additives that exist in today’s fuel.  Since MTBE is toxic, most would consider this a good thing. 

There is a downside to using ethanol as fuel – it’s highly corrosive and breaks down the rubber and plastics in today’s engines.  Engines can be engineered, however, to deal with these problems.  The technology to run the same engine on either E85 or 100% gasoline is also readily available.  The vehicles that support both types of fuel are commonly known as flex-fuel vehicles.  Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury and Nissan all sell flex-fuel automobiles in the US market.

So, you might ask, why isn’t everyone driving flex-fuel cars?  Well, for some reason, only 600 out of the 200,000 some odd gas stations in the US carries E85.  If you’re in the Midwest, you may have a shot at finding one within a full gas tank of travel.  If you’re anywhere else, however, you’re gonna be outta luck.  The only public station in all of California that sells E85 is in San Diego. 

Additionally, while there is a surplus of the corn and grains required to produce E85 in the US, there are not enough production facilities to actually distill the stuff.  Perhaps $72/barrel is enough of a kick in the ass to get some enterprising people to step it up.  It seems like a we’re goin’ to the moon by the end of the decade program might be a reasonable use of my tax dollars to wean ourselves off the fossil fuel drug.  E85 production and availability might be a good start.

While America thinks with its wallet and shells out outrageous prices for hybrid automobiles, it’s missing the fact that demand for diesel and E85 technology can advance the cause (no matter which cause it is) further and faster than our current path with hybrids only.  Ultimately, electric technology will be used to augment these other liquid-fuel solutions, creating far superior hybrid vehicles.  In the mean time, the liquid fuel alternatives are available today; more people need to get informed and demand we move faster in those directions.

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 April 23rd, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments

4 Responses to The Prius Deception – Part II

  1. There is a lot of debate as to whether the net energy is really improved in ethanol, given the energy (and pollution) costs of growing and distilling the corn.  Also, to replace gasoline would require that 28% of the U.S. land area be dedicated to this.  The likely outcome would be more clearing of rainforests  to grow these crops. It’s further arguable whether this is really sustainable, since growing the crops needed for ethanol deplete the soil of specific nutrients.  In all, it’s not such a simple case, unless you’re Archer Daniels Midland.

  2. There is a lot of debate as to whether the net energy is really improved in ethanol, given the energy (and pollution) costs of growing and distilling the corn.  Also, to replace gasoline would require that 28% of the U.S. land area be dedicated to this.  The likely outcome would be more clearing of rainforests  to grow these crops. It’s further arguable whether this is really sustainable, since growing the crops needed for ethanol deplete the soil of specific nutrients.  In all, it’s not such a simple case, unless you’re Archer Daniels Midland.

  3. 28% would be a lot.  I’d be willing to bet, however, that adjusting the prices for many crop types above their current ridiculously low levels would have a big impact on the amount of land available for growing crops for fuel.  Of course, these numbers assume that we are trying to replace ALL of the gasoline we are consuming (or at least 85% of it).  I don’t think that should be the goal of E85 use.  It is just one weapon in an arsenal to reduce US dependence on foreign oil.  The combination of the use of E85, diesel and electric motors – all technology available today – could make a major dent in our crystal meth-like addiction to middle eastern black crude.  Total replacement of rotted animal guts will require new technologies or, G-d forbid, an actual reduction in energy consumption.

  4. 28% would be a lot.  I’d be willing to bet, however, that adjusting the prices for many crop types above their current ridiculously low levels would have a big impact on the amount of land available for growing crops for fuel.  Of course, these numbers assume that we are trying to replace ALL of the gasoline we are consuming (or at least 85% of it).  I don’t think that should be the goal of E85 use.  It is just one weapon in an arsenal to reduce US dependence on foreign oil.  The combination of the use of E85, diesel and electric motors – all technology available today – could make a major dent in our crystal meth-like addiction to middle eastern black crude.  Total replacement of rotted animal guts will require new technologies or, G-d forbid, an actual reduction in energy consumption.

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