Fuel-Cycle Model Shows Ethanol Poised for Major Role

By Published On: January 12, 2007

Ethanol is likely to play a major role under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s carbon emissions reduction edict for transportation fuel if the results of a fuel-cycle analysis model – dubbed the “gold standard” by the Society of Automotive Engineers – is embraced. While other fuels – such as hydrogen and electricity – will be helpful after further development, corn-based ethanol is here at the moment and can bring immediate benefits, it shows. The model is expected to be used by a contractor to the California Energy Commission to analyze alternative fuels for their greenhouse gas emissions. The study will examine a range of transportation fuels – from electricity to gasoline. It is being done under the aegis of AB 1007, a bill that calls for the state to develop an alternative-fuels policy to cut the use of gasoline. Michael Wang, who developed the model at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, told Circuit that the contractor, TIAX, makes extensive use of the “Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation” model, known as GREET. Wang is Argonne’s transportation research and development center systems assessment section leader. TIAX is set to begin the fuel-cycle analysis next month and complete it by June, said an Energy Commission spokesperson. The GREET model shows that readily available ethanol will have a clear-cut advantage under the governor’s policy. It demonstrates that the average gallon of ethanol made in the U.S. today cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent compared to gasoline, Wang said. Ethanol made at plants opened recently or now under construction cuts greenhouse gas emissions even more, by 22 percent, the model shows. Even better is ethanol from Pacific Ethanol’s new plant in the Central Valley, which cuts the emissions by 40 percent, according to Wang. Much of the extra reduction results from the company being able to send the byproduct of ethanol production known as distiller’s grain to cattle feedlots without drying it, an energy-intensive process, he explained. Ethanol has a head start compared to competing technologies, such as plug-in hybrid vehicles, for additional reasons. The 2005 Energy Policy Act, for instance, mandated a doubling of the alternative fuel’s use by 2012 and provided loan guarantees and other subsidies for producers. Moreover, the technology needed to make and use it is readily available and quick to install. Ethanol plants take only about a year to build, observed Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute president. It also is easy to supply ethanol to motorists, either by blending it into gasoline or by selling it in a purer form, known as E-85. Automakers, according to the coalition, are producing dozens of models of flexible-fueled vehicles. Most are trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles. Even Toyota has joined the ethanol bandwagon with an announcement January 9 that it will market flexible-fueled V-8 Tundra pickup trucks beginning with its model year 2009. California already has 203,400 flexible-fueled vehicles on the road, according to Michelle Kautz, National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition spokesperson. The Big Three automakers have pledged to market one million flexible-fueled vehicles a year by 2012, she said. Last year U.S. motorists bought 16.5 million light-duty vehicles. Car makers benefit from marketing flexible-fueled vehicles because they earn federal corporate average fuel economy standard credits. They can bank the credits to offset the sale of gas hogs and still meet the federal mileage standard. E-85 fueling pumps are springing up nationally at the rate of hundreds per year, mostly in the Midwest, according to the ethanol coalition, with more than 1,000 now in service. However, late last year the U.S. Department of Energy moved to push E-85 in California by providing funding to a partnership of companies to install 15 ethanol stations. The group includes General Motors, Pacific Ethanol, CleanFUEL USA, and CALSTART. Filling stations also can be retrofitted to dispense E-85 for about $3,000 a pump, said Kautz. Many major oil companies, including Shell, Conoco, and BP, have retrofitted pumps to vend E-85, especially in the Midwest. Ethanol should pull further ahead of gasoline as a greenhouse gas emissions strategy because it will take more and more energy to extract oil from marginal deposits such as tar sands or dwindling reservoirs through enhanced techniques, said Wang. Meanwhile, ethanol production is likely to become more efficient, particularly if cellulosic ethanol technology is successfully developed, he said. – William J. Kelly

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