Henry Ford had it right in 1908 when he designed his first Ford Motor Company automobile, the Model T, to use ethanol. Ford called ethanol “the fuel of the future.” Describing the benefits of producing crop-based biofuels, Ford said ethanol would be far cheaper than gasoline, boost car performance with high octane ratings, clean the car engine and promote longer engine life, be environmentally friendly and be a more renewable energy source.
To Ford’s credit, the future is now with ethanol. Ford’s assessment of the benefits of ethanol still rings true today. Ethanol improves air quality with reduced harmful emissions, reduces our dependence on foreign oil and provides consumers with better performing fuel.
Ethanol use started in the 1920s by Standard Oil to increase octane and reduce engine knocking. Ethanol has those same benefits today, including air quality improvements. Widespread use started in the late 1990s to replace the oxygenated Methyl-tert-butyl ether because MTBE was harming our drinking water. Cities like Denver required the use of ethanol to improve air quality, with other cities requiring ethanol to clean up the dirty gasoline.
Our country decided it needed to provide cleaner burning fuel (something Big Oil wouldn’t do on its own) and increase our energy dependence with renewable fuels. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 established the Renewable Fuel Standard to require specific levels of renewable fuels to be added to gasoline.
Over that time ethanol has been a success. In 2015, ethanol lowered CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 41.2 million metric tons — equal to removing 8.7 million cars from roads. The American Lung Association calls E85 (fuel with up to 85 percent ethanol) the “Clean Air Choice” because ethanol reduces harmful emissions.
We’ve reduced how much we depend on foreign oil. The 14.8 billion gallons of domestically produced ethanol in 2015 lowered net U.S. import petroleum dependence 25 to 32 percent.
It’s true that corn growers and the ethanol industry have been aided by the RFS, but consumers have been the beneficiaries of the RFS. It was needed to provide competitive choices for the purpose of opening the fuels market. The current fuel market is dominated by foreign companies, receiving anywhere from $10 billion to $52 billion a year in corporate welfare.
Today, ethanol is standing on its own as a clean-burning, lower-cost fuel option in the marketplace. The increase in overall fuel supplies from domestically produced ethanol blended with gasoline has helped lower gas prices at the pump by anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per gallon.
What Ford recognized about engine safety and performance more than 100 years ago still holds true today. Automakers are responding to consumer demands with vehicles designed to support higher blends of clean-burning, high-octane biofuels.
Because of this growing consumer acceptance, companies like Kwik Trip in Wisconsin, Sheetz in North Carolina, and Kum & Go in Iowa are installing pumps to offer consumers E15 blends, a lower-cost fuel with higher octane levels. It’s likely the auto you drive today can run on E15 — just check your manufacturer’s warranty.
With advancements in corn farming and ethanol production technology in the last 20 years, ethanol production has a positive energy balance. One unit of energy invested in corn ethanol production creates 2.3 units of usable energy, and the process is only becoming more efficient as technology progresses. We’ve done this without hitting consumers in the pocketbook in higher food costs, which is driven mainly by the cost of transportation.
The simple truth is that ethanol is transforming how we make and use energy. At its core, ethanol is a solution that offers drivers a renewable fuel source at a lower cost with engine-performance benefits. Bottom line, there’s a place at the pump for both petroleum and ethanol, just like Henry Ford foretold. It’s just that ethanol is proving to be the cleaner, better-performing fuel.
Casey Kelleher is a corn grower from Whitewater and president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.