From the 3 E's to the 3 C's

FROM THE APRIL ISSUE: Touting ethanol as a source of clean octane, it's ability to reduce carbon, and allowing consumer choice in the marketplace.
By Geoff Cooper | March 26, 2020

For decades, ethanol advocates have used the “Three E’s” to describe the renewable fuel’s main advantages: energy security, economic development and environmental benefits.
Indeed, from conversations at the coffee shop to meetings on Capitol Hill, the “Three Es” have helped us successfully typify ethanol’s benefits. They have served us well—and will continue to do so—as we share ethanol’s good story with the public and policymakers.
But as we focus more acutely on positioning ethanol in future discussions about energy and climate change, we need to play to ethanol’s unique strengths and emphasize the “Three C’s:” clean octane, carbon reduction and consumer choice.

First, it is already well-understood that ethanol has tremendous value as an octane booster. Of all the options available to refiners, ethanol unquestionably has the highest blending octane number and is available at the lowest cost. While ethanol has been used for decades to boost octane, moving forward, much higher octane will be needed to enable greater fuel economy and significantly reduce emissions.

Numerous studies have shown that the use of high-octane fuels—in the range of 98 to 100 RON—in high- compression engines can greatly improve fuel efficiency and reduce both criteria pollutants and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

But here’s the thing: Not all octane boosters are created equal. Refiners really have just two choices: they can choose ethanol—a clean, renewable octane source—or they can choose aromatics and other hydrocarbon octane boosters, many of which endanger human health and worsen air pollution.
Second, ethanol is a low-cost and readily available tool for reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

As we enter a new decade, state and federal action on carbon reduction appears inevitable and imminent. Transportation has emerged as the single largest source of GHG emissions and thus lawmakers are especially interested in policy solutions that can reduce the carbon intensity of our fuels and vehicles. 

With ethanol, we don’t have to wait and hope for major technological or economic breakthroughs. The fuel is available now at a low cost to drive decarbonization. Studies and real-world data show grain-based ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 35 to 50 percent compared to gasoline today. Emerging technologies promise to boost that reduction to around 70 percent in the next few years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Finally, ethanol enables greater competition and consumer choice. Competition reduces costs for consumers, spurs innovation and stimulates the invention of new products and more efficient processes. In fact, the competition driven by the Renewable Fuel Standard is responsible for reducing gas prices by at least 22 cents per gallon in recent years, according to a recent study by economist Phil Verleger.

Let’s be honest. If we had a truly “free market,” wouldn’t consumers choose the lower-cost, lower-carbon, higher-octane, biodgradable, American-made option every single time? Of course they would. That’s why we must continue to fight for policies that provide market access and tear down artificial barriers to expanded ethanol use around the globe.

So, how do we take the “Three C’s” and translate them into actionable policy that truly expands the market for ethanol, reduces emissions, enables greater fuel efficiency, enhances competition and choice, and lowers prices at the pump?

As we write the next chapter of renewable fuels policy, RFA and our allies believe ethanol has a tremendous opportunity to serve as the key ingredient of a future high-octane, low-carbon fuel that delivers significant benefits to American consumers. We are advocating for the establishment of a minimum octane standard for gasoline, preferably at the 98 RON level, and a requirement that the octane boost comes from sources or processes that reduce life cycle GHG emissions compared to a hydrocarbon baseline.

We are actively engaged in discussions with lawmakers and regulators around this idea. We are doing the legal work and the economic analysis, and we are working to broaden the coalition of supporters for high-octane, low-carbon fuels. You will hear a lot more about these efforts as the year progresses.


Author: Geoff Cooper
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association
[email protected]