I'm old enough to remember when ethanol blends first began to appear at gas stations. I can't remember why, but my impression at the time was that gasoline containing a small percentage of ethanol was in some way inferior to "regular" gas. (That says a lot about the petroleum industry's PR efforts; I was only in my teens, yet somehow believed "regular" gas was a lot better.)
It turns out that assumption was wrong.
A few months ago I took an emotional intelligence test (which didn't leave me feeling particularly good about myself) and realized that social responsibility isn't a strong suit for me, especially where the environment is concerned. So I'm working to change that.
To do so, I need to become more aware of a few things I do without thinking. Putting gas in my car was one of them. I just filled up when necessary; I didn't think about the kind of gas I chose, much less the kind of gas I would someday like to choose. Then I noticed the Sunoco fuel used by NASCAR teams is an E-15 blend... and long story short, in my effort to become more socially responsible, I have become an ethanol proponent.
Ethanol dramatically reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Ethanol replaces toxic additives that have been linked to smog and cancer. Ethanol helps reduce America's reliance on overseas oil.
And the ethanol industry is a classic story of American entrepreneurship. Most ethanol plants are owned by small businesspeople, not giant corporations. Thousands of corn farmers supply the raw material; thousands of other entrepreneurs turn by-products into thriving businesses. And not incidentally, military veterans make up nearly 20% of the ethanol industry's workforce.
"Many factories are celebrating their ten-year anniversaries," says Emily Skor, the CEO of Growth Energy, an organization that represents producers and supporters of ethanol, "and if you look at the risks they took the ups and downs and peaks and valleys they went through... it's really remarkable. There are ethanol plants where the source of funding was the local community: A few thousand families all put in, say, $10,000 each. Ingenuity, innovation, hard work... the ethanol industry is the embodiment of American small business."
I hadn't realized that entrepreneurs are the backbone of the ethanol industry, nor had I realized the benefits of ethanol fuels. To me, gas was a commodity. In fact, the result of all that innovation and investment is surprising.
"Ethanol is a higher octane fuel," Emily says, "burns cleaner and cooler... that's better for the environment. The more ethanol you have in your gas tank, the fewer the toxic additives and the cleaner it burns. That's empirical. Ethanol reduces greenhouse emissions by 43% compared to petroleum. In the second generation, where a lot of the innovation is taking place, look at some of the studies and we're talking 90 to 100% greenhouse reduction. And unlike some environmentally friendly things you can do, it's also a win for the consumer: a more affordable higher octane can save you 5 or ten cents per mile, and it's good for your engine."
So with all the advantages resulting from ethanol fuel, why hasn't E-15 become the standard? (Most gasoline contains 10% ethanol, but regulators have approached E-15 (15% ethanol) for use in vehicles manufactured from 2001 on, and all new car warranties approve the use of E-15.)
"It's tough to break into such an established marketplace," Emily says. "Control of production and retail makes transportation fuel almost a virtual monopoly. When you come along and say,"I'm a new product, I'm cleaner, I'm greener, I'm more affordable... can you give me market share?" They're not going to hand it over to you. We needed some policy to intervene to give us access to the marketplace, and that effort has been successful. But we're not stopping there. We're hoping to make E-15 the standard, and in the meantime we're working with innovative retailers to offer a new choice of fuel that has a 15% blend of ethanol."
That's where NASCAR comes into play. NASCAR teams have run over 10 million miles on Sunoco Green E-15, a biofuel blended with 15% ethanol. Not only has the use of E-15 fuel been validated in terms of reduced emissions, the Sunoco partnership has paid public awareness dividends: Research shows that NASCAR fans are more likely than non-NASCAR fans to use ethanol blended gasoline in their own cars.
And as far as performance? That's a non-issue. Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for the Chase Elliott team at Hendrick Motorsports (yes, that Alan Gustafson), praises E-15 fuel by saying he doesn't even need to think about it. "With all the performance details we constantly juggle, the gas we use is never one of them. I don't have to worry about it. There are hundreds of issues that come up when you're constantly pushing the boundaries of speed, but the gas we use is never one of them."
So while social responsibility was reason enough for me to seek higher percentage blends of ethanol gas, what resonated even more with me is the fact that ethanol is an entrepreneur's industry.
"When fuel crisis hit in the 70s," says General Wesley Clark, a member of the Growth Energy board, "people in the Midwest stepped in and created 'gasohol.' But it wasn't very efficient. Now, what we have is an incredibly efficient, incredibly progressive industry that is very cost-sensitive, it improves dramatically, looks at scraps, reductions in fuel reductions in water usage, better yeast for the fermentation, better enzymes to convert the starch to sugar... every scrap of economic performance they can get."
I also love entrepreneurs because they're willing to take risks. They're willing to bet on their willingness to work hard, to overcome obstacles, and stay the course.
"It's the farmer's themselves who risked their livelihoods," General Clark says. "In the mid-80s, some of them mortgaged their family farms to buy bankrupt ethanol plants. Over the years they've built incredible organizations that are not just good businesses, they help provide jobs and livelihoods for thousands of people in their communities."
In this case, becoming more socially responsible was easier than I thought -- especially when social responsibility also supports small businesses.
Can't beat that.