ROCHESTER - Ethanol use has more than doubled in the United States, but renewable fuel and flex-fuel vehicle development still have a long way to go, a U.S. House Agriculture sub-committee learned during a public hearing Monday at Oakland University.
U.S. Agriculture Department Under-Secretary Tom Dorr, several farm organization representatives and automakers testified before the congressional panel.
"U.S. automakers have produced enough FFVs so that nearly 4 percent of the U.S. fleet can run on ethanol," said Ford Motor Company Vice President of Environmental and Safety Engineering Susan Cischke. " If all of those vehicles used E85, the nation would save 3.6 billion gallons of gasoline per year. That is like saving a full year of gasoline consumption in a state like Missouri or Tennessee."
That seems impressive at first blush. But, the United States is not exactly leading the world in the adoption of FFVs and renewable fuels. That honor seems to go to Brazil. Cischke said that 73 percent of vehicles on the road in that South American nation are E85 capable.
However, she also cautioned that it takes more to manufacture an FFV than "a little tweak to the chip that runs the engine. I really wish it were that simple, but it isnít."
Because ethanol is a unique fuel with unique properties, fuel tanks with low permeation characteristics are required. It also requires a special fuel pump and fuel lines to deliver the fuel to the engine. Unique injectors introduce the fuel into the engine where special calibrations programmed into the on-board computer determine how much ethanol is in the fuel and how best to set spark timing and fuel flow.
"And because there is more than one fuel calibration within an FFV, costly development and certification testing is doubled," she explained. "The bottom line is ó making an FFV is a significant investment for auto manufacturers. That is the biggest constraint on the technology."
Despite the cost of producing FFVs, Cischke and representatives from DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and Volkswagen of America told the congressional panel that their companies were committed to produce the vehicles.
One reason that the car companies are committed to FFVs and ethanol is that consumers are demanding an alternative to petroleum-based fuels, according to General Motors Strategic Initiatives Manager Dr. Mary Beth Stanck.
"Consumer awareness, interest and demand are all growing," she said. "And consumers are also becoming more educated about FFVs and renewable fuels."
The nation seems to be gearing up to producing ethanol made from corn or soybeans. Across the United States, 35 refineries are under construction. Twenty-one of those projects broke ground in the past year.
"We should be able to produce 2.2 billion gallons of new ethanol products in the next 12- to 18-months," said Michigan Ethanol LLC General Manager Tony Simpson. He runs the only operational ethanol refinery in Michigan.
"Ethanol has become a ubiquitous component of the U.S. motor fuel market," he said. "Today, ethanol is blended in more than 40 percent of the nationís fuel. And it is sold virtually from coast to coast and border to border."
So, consumers are demanding more ethanol. Dozens of refineries are being built to fill that demand. And, farmers seem more than willing to raise and sell the crops needed to manufacture it. As a matter of fact, one member of the congressional panel said that the drive to develop ethanol is probably the best thing that has happened to the U.S. family farm since President Franklin D. Rooseveltís New Deal.
However, distribution of ethanol continues to be a problem. The panel learned that of the more than 170,000 gas stations in the United States, only 600 are selling ethanol-based gasoline. And only six of those stations are in Michigan.
DaimlerChrysler executive Reginald Modlin urged the panel to create legislation that would solve that problem. He said that Congress needs to help accelerate the retail sales infrastructure that is needed to make ethanol fuel more available to the public through tax incentives, capital depreciation allowances and other fiscal instruments.
Dorr told the panel that the Bush administration, and the nationís farming community are committed the development of ethanol as a way to reduce the United Statesí dependence on foreign oil.
"We can kick the imported oil habit, if we really want to," he said.
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