The Standoff for E30

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy may be just a block or two apart on Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., but they are miles apart on their long-term outlook for ethanol. Seemingly disparate objectives make E30s future less clear.
By Susanne Retka Schill | June 11, 2020

The good: The USDA set a goal of a market-driven E30 blend rate by 2050 in its Agriculture Innovation Agenda released in February.

The bad: Under U.S. EPA rules, only flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) can use blends of E20, E30 or E85. And the final rule updating the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards—the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule published at the end of March—failed to extend incentives for automakers to build FFVs.

And the ugly: Many are concerned that the decade’s-worth of work that went into overcoming infrastructure barriers and a Reid vapor pressure waiver for E15 will have to be replicated to expand E30 in the marketplace.

The trajectory of current policies is a mixed message for ethanol, according to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020, released in January. The EIA’s reference case based on current trends and policy calls for the percentage of biofuels blended into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to increase from 7.3 percent in 2019 to a high of 9 percent in 2040 before slightly declining through 2050. Most of that growth is expected to be in biofuels other than ethanol.

The best-case scenario for biofuels in AEO2020 considers the impact of higher global crude oil prices and projects a 55 percent growth for fuel ethanol and biodiesel. “In this scenario, domestic biofuels consumption increases to 1.62 million b/d (barrels per day), or a 13.5 percent biofuels share, in 2050,” reports the biofuels summary released March 9. Doing the math, that’s 20.4 billion gallons per year of fuel ethanol, renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel combined.

EIA’s outlook demonstrates just how heavy of a lift it will be to achieve USDA’s three-fold higher goal. But what if EIA is right about projected vehicle miles driven and fuel efficiencies, and USDA is right about reaching an E30 blend rate? The AEO2020 reference case projects motor gasoline demand dropping from 2020’s 9.3 million barrels per day (117.3 billion gallons per year) to 7.76 million b/d (97.9 billion gallons per year) by 2050. If those projections are realized, E10 would call for just 9.8 billion gallons of ethanol in 30 years. That’s lower even than this year’s pre-COVID-19 expectation of 12 billion gallons. A move to E15 would help, but essentially maintain the status quo of the best of recent years of 15 billion gallons of ethanol demand.

In contrast, an E30 blend rate would consume 29.4 billion gallons of ethanol in 30 years, based on EIA’s projections for gasoline demand.

For ethanol to continue to support the corn market as corn yields continue to grow, and for cellulosic ethanol to have any chance of finding a home in the market, ethanol blend rates will need to be closer to USDA’s vision than EIA’s projections. Efforts are underway to make that happen.

E30 for Non-FFVs
One effort has focused on getting recognition for ethanol’s high-octane advantage. For several years, advocates had been encouraged by reports from automakers that E30 is a sweet spot for achieving efficient internal combustion engine performance. To the industry’s disappointment, the SAFE Vehicle Rule lacks incentives for FFVs and rolls back increased CAFE targets outlined in the proposed rule, and it fails to provide a pathway to transition to high-octane, low-carbon fuels. 

Another effort is focused on demonstrating that E30 can be safely and efficiently used as a fuel in existing non-FFV vehicles without modification. The first big demonstration was done in Watertown, South Dakota, by Glacial Lakes Energy with support from ICM. The one-year E30 Challenge was launched in the fall of 2015, with 40 vehicles outfitted with data loggers to record information about the vehicles’ performance. The challenge was repeated at Glacial Lake’s second location near Aberdeen, South Dakota.

The South Dakota effort has gained the support of first-term Governor Kristi Noem. She kept her promise, made at a campaign event at Glacial Lakes Energy, and announced in her first state of the state address in January 2019 that she had launched a transition of the state fleet to using E30.

“[The E30 Challenge] was a very successful initiative that opened up the door to higher blends,” says ICM CEO Dave VanderGriend. “We were careful that we had the support of the retailers in town, the auto dealers, a mechanic that could validate if there were any issues. It was a glowing success. We had no fuel issues and we validated there was no appreciable mileage change when blending higher amounts of ethanol.”

VanderGriend adds that Wichita, the Kansas city next door to ICM’s Colwich headquarters, now has 13 gas stations offering mid-level blends and E85, with similar results. “We’re seeing significant E30 sales. I think it demonstrates that with a little bit of effort, education and promotion, E30 can be a viable fuel choice.”

In 2019, the Urban Air Initiative, led by VanderGriend, commissioned a study at North Carolina State University to independently test emissions and performance in regular non-FFV vehicles operated under various loads using E0, E10 and E25. The study, “Comparison of real-word vehicle use and tailpipe emissions for gasoline-ethanol fuel blends,” confirmed emissions improved with the higher blend, and furthermore, that octane-induced efficiency gains counter-balance the lower energy density of the mid-level blends. There was minimal gas mileage loss with the mid-level blend and non-FFV engines performed well under varied driving conditions.

Nebraska Reprises Road Test
Nebraska is taking South Dakota’s approach one step further. “We thought we could validate [E30] by doing a more scientific design, like we did many decades ago,” says Todd Sneller, the recently retired, long-time administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board. At the height of the gasohol movement in the mid-1970s, the Nebraska group enlisted the aid of University of Nebraska engineers to conduct a 2 million-mile test that laid the scientific foundation of the successful petition to EPA that approved 10 percent ethanol blends in 1978.

The Nebraskans began laying the groundwork for an E30 project, gathering information from South Dakota and engaging Nebraska partners. “It requires an enormous amount of cooperation from a lot of different parties,” Sneller says. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ staff helped coordinate state fleet managers and the state patrol, and the University of Nebraska’s engineering department signed on. The group sought the approval of the U.S. EPA and an E30 waiver.

“We wanted to make sure we go about it in a way that complies with EPA protocols,” Sneller says. “I think the ethanol board and other advocacy groups are trying to stay out of the way so this is viewed as a credible scientific design, executed by the University of Nebraska in cooperation with state government, and this isn’t viewed as something done by advocacy groups that are trying to promote a product.”

For the past year, drivers of 50 state vehicles—all non-FFVs—have been maintaining logs and filling up with the designated fuel. Paired with similar models, half are using E10 or E15 and half are running on E30. Of those, 10 are Dodge Chargers used by state patrol officers. “That’s really interesting because those cars get used really hard,” says Roger Berry, the current administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board. He adds that the initial reaction from the state patrol was encouraging. “The comment when we first started was ‘that E30 has some pick up and go,’” he says. 

The preliminary results are finding no issues, Berry says. The university engineers will analyze engine performance and fuel economy in greater detail, using data collected from data loggers plugged into each vehicle. The data collected includes long-term fuel trend, vehicle speed, engine load, intake air temperature, coolant temperature, and data from sensors that indicate the amount of air flowing into the engine’s intake manifold and the unburnt oxygen in the exhaust. The first-year data collection ends June 3, although the group is applying for an extension from EPA to add another two years to the project. Berry expects the engineers will take a few months to compile and analyze the first-year data before publishing a peer-reviewed report.

Getting the word out on the results will be important, Sneller says, remembering how in the 1970s, the lead engineer for the 2 million-mile test spoke at every technical conference he possibly could.
Berry adds that work must continue on addressing multiple roadblocks, from pump stickers declaring “this could damage your engine,” to getting tanks and dispensers approved for E30. All Wayne dispensers now work on E25, he adds, “And we’ve tested that equipment up to E40 with absolutely no problems. But Underwriters Laboratory [will not change] the rating until more testing is done.” Another roadblock will be the need to get a Reid vapor pressure waiver for E30, a hurdle that took E15 a decade to overcome.

Timelines, Consumer Choice
Will the USDA’s vision of an E30 blend rate by 2050 be realized? A goal of E30 in 30 years is too far out, Sneller says. “What farmer today will look to 2050 and think, ‘Everything is going to be fine by then. I can wait this out.’” A more useful goal would be E30 by 2030, he says. “If there was a desire to really be moving on these things, there are some tools that could be brought to the forefront.”

Sneller points to the many policy shifts toward biofuels  he has witnessed—at times there was a very strong ag rationale, energy security rose to the top during the 1970s when there were three major oil crises, and public health was the primary concern at other times. All continue to be compelling.

VanderGriend says EPA needs to get out of the way of consumer choice. “All we’re trying to do is demonstrate that higher blends of ethanol are safe, competitive and good for the environment. The limitation to being out there competing is actually the federal government—EPA. Should they be focused on things that make the environment worse, or on things that make the environment better?”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance Journalist