Ethanol Benefits & Considerations
Ethanol is a renewable, domestically produced transportation fuel. Whether used in low-level blends, such as E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline), or in E85 (a gasoline-ethanol blend containing 51% to 83% ethanol, depending on geography and season), ethanol helps reduce petroleum use in transportation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Like any alternative fuel, there are some considerations to take into account when contemplating the use of ethanol.
Depending heavily on foreign petroleum supplies puts the United States at risk for trade deficits and supply disruption. In 2014, 27% of petroleum products were imported. That number has declined during the past 10 years because of increased domestic crude supplies and ethanol production.
Fuel Economy and Performance
A gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline. The result is lower fuel economy than a gallon of gasoline. The amount of energy difference varies depending on the blend. For example, E85, with 83% ethanol content, has about 27% less energy per gallon than gasoline (the impact to fuel economy lessens as ethanol content decreases). Gasoline vehicles, including flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs), are optimized for gasoline. If they were optimized to run on higher ethanol blends, the fuel economy penalty would likely be less.
Ethanol production creates jobs in rural areas where employment opportunities are needed. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, ethanol production in 2014 led to the addition of nearly 84,000 direct jobs across the country, $53 billion to the gross domestic product, and $27 billion in household income. (See the Pocket Guide to Ethanol 2015 (pdf)).
The carbon dioxide released when ethanol is burned is balanced by the carbon dioxide captured when the crops are grown to make ethanol. This differs from petroleum, which is made from plants that grew millions of years ago. On a life cycle analysis basis, GHG emissions are reduced on average by 40% with corn-based ethanol produced from dry mills, and up to 108% if cellulosic feedstocks are used, compared with gasoline production and use.
Equipment and Availability
Low-level blends of E10 or less require no special fueling equipment, and they can be used in any conventional gasoline vehicle. It is also possible to accommodate blends above E10 in existing fueling equipment, however, some equipment needs to be upgraded to comply with federal code. See the Codes, Standards, and Safety page and the Handbook for Handling, Storing, and Dispensing E85 and Other Ethanol-Gasoline Blends (pdf) for detailed information on compatible equipment.
FFVs (which can operate on E85, gasoline, or any blend of the two) are available nationwide as standard equipment with no incremental cost, making them an affordable alternative fuel vehicle option. Fueling stations offering E85 are predominately located in the Midwest. Find E85 fueling stations in your area.