GM makes push for biofuel, infrastructure

By Luke Geiver | February 09, 2010
Posted Feb. 16, 2010

General Motors Corp. has left bankruptcy, but not the biofuels industry. As a precursor to a speech at the 15th Annual National Ethanol Conference in Orlando, Fla., Tom Stephens, GM's vice chairman of global product operations, said during a conference call that the company remains committed to ethanol. The last time Stephens addressed the NEC was in 2005 to announce a program providing GM flex-fuel vehicles to a Governor's Biofuels Coalition. Now, with energy demands increasing by two percent per year and oil consumption outstripping supply according to Stephens, GM believes biofuels offer the best near-term solution to not only reduce dependence on petroleum, but to expand the nation's energy portfolio while reducing the carbon impact of driving.

To show this commitment to biofuels, GM plans to make half of its 2012 vehicle fleet flex-fuel capable, but for Stephens, producing ethanol compatible vehicles is not enough. "GM's growing output of vehicles capable of running on ethanol-gasoline blends won't help cut polluting emissions or U.S. dependence on foreign oil until a slim network of stations dispensing ethanol is greatly expanded," said Stephens.

With GM producing 4 million of the 7.5 million flex-fuel vehicles in the U.S. at roughly $70 extra dollars for each E85-compatible car, GM is spending an extra $100 million per year. For Stephens, GM's investment in biofuels should not be stranded by allowing the small number (2,200) of ethanol fueling stations to remain at the current number. "There need to be 12,000 or more ethanol stations to have ethanol fuel available for every one of our customers within about two miles of where they live."

Coupled with the lack of available fuel pumps, Stephens noted the actual location of the existing pumps as another problem. "Two-thirds of the pumps are concentrated in 10 states and those 10 states have only about 19 percent of the flex-fuel vehicles that we have on the road," said Stevens. "That's a big problem for us." One of the solutions GM has used to fix the dilemma of having 90 percent of registered flex-fuel owners without an E85 station in their own zip code is the I-65 Biofuels corridor. Partnering with the states of Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, the U.S. DOE and others, GM helped create an 886-mile biofuels corridor from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico. While driving on the 886-mile stretch, a motorist will never be more than a quarter of a tank away from an E85 pump according to Stephens.

Although still months away, motorist may soon also have the choice of different ethanol blends beyond the current E10 limit. Until these tests are completed on the effects of mid level blends on conventional engines, Stephens said GM will not support lifting the blend limit. Citing the need for sound science as a driving force in the support of removing the current blend wall, Stephens said GM remains concerned about people using fuels over that blended limit. While supporting industry innovation, Stephens said we need to avoid immature models of indirect land use change, allowing drop-in fuels to stop the infrastructure build out and a lack of will among policy makers to provide grants for infrastructure.