The Pope Runs on Biofuels. Why Can't You?

Pope Francis has a "new" ride that can run on biofuels. Source: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo.

Sorry, Ford (NYSE: F  ) -- the Pope is more of a Renault guy.

The Vatican splashed down in the news feeds of green enthusiasts everywhere last week when it announced that Pope Francis will trade in his Ford Focus for a 1984 Renault 4. The vehicle was a gift from an Italian priest, Father Renzo Zocca, and comes with 190,000 miles, snow chains for cold winters, a unique story, and the ability to run on biofuels. In fact, Zocca maintains that most of the car's miles were driven on renewable fuels.

That should play perfectly with the Pope's views toward living humbly and sustainably. Whether the Renault ever gets fueled with another drop of biofuel or biofuel-laced gasoline is unknown, but perhaps we can all learn something from the Vatican's Earth-friendly approach to driving. How feasible would it be for your family car to run on higher blends of biofuels, such as E85 -- a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline?

What vehicle would you drive?
First things first: You'll need to buy a flex-fuel vehicle, or FFV, that can run on everything from pure gasoline to ethanol blends all the way up to E85. Who's selling these ethanol-guzzling vehicles? Most major automakers and brands -- including Ford, General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , Cadillac, Audi, and even Mercedes-Benz -- jumped onboard the FFV train years ago.

Driving on E85 isn't your only option, but out of the 11 million alternative-fuel vehicles on American roads in 2011, an estimated 10 million were FFVs, according to the Energy Information Administration. Current estimates from the Renewable Fuels Association peg the number closer to 15 million ethanol-ready vehicles. Most belong to Ford and GM, which each offer more than a dozen models, ranging from versions of the Ford Ranger to the Chevy Malibu.

Still, to put those numbers in perspective, there were 240 million cars in the United States in 2010. So why, given our success producing ethanol, aren't FFVs more popular?  

Is E85 cost effective?
The biggest reason is costs. If you buy a flex vehicle for your family car and choose to fuel it strictly with E85, you'll have a lot of things to worry about. First, good luck finding one of the 2,338 gas stations that sell higher ethanol blends. It will be a little easier in ethanol-producing states in the Midwest, but it just isn't a realistic option for most drivers. Second, ethanol contains 27% less energy than gasoline sold today, which means you'll have to fuel up more often. By contrast, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) is building a network of charging stations that will cover 98% of the country's population by 2015. Consumers would also be able to charge up an all-electric vehicle at home. Is it possible that range anxiety will only apply to drivers using E85 by mid-decade?

And since you really pay for energy content at the pump, getting 27% less of it also means E85 prices would need to be considerably less than those of gasoline just to reach breakeven. Consider how E85 affects the fuel economy of the following 2014 model year FFVs: 

Car

City MPG (Gas/E85)

Highway MPG (Gas/E85)

Annual Cost Difference of Driving on E85

Ford Focus

26/20

37/28

$350

Chevy Equinox

22/15

32/22

$700

Mercedes-Benz E350

21/16

31/23

$300

Dodge Charger

19/14

31/23

$600

Source: FuelEconomy.gov.

Automakers aren't exactly making the vehicles a priority, either. Although Ford and GM remain committed, producing flexible autos won't help reach the latest Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards. Under previous revisions, automakers were granted a reprieve if they produced FFVs despite their lower fuel economy. The fleet target at the time was a mere 27.5 mpg. Ford and GM must now sport fleets that achieve 54.5 mpg by 2025, and while they can always claim the gasoline fuel economy of their FFVs, both companies are focusing their efforts on hybrid and electric technology.

At the end of the day, Tesla sets a high bar. E85 does not.

Can anyone flex some E85 muscles?
If you live in the Midwest, there's a chance that a flex vehicle makes sense for your family. Although it may be a short-term trend because of volatility in the ethanol credit market, E85 has reached cost-parity with regular gasoline (E10, of course) in recent months -- and even beaten it.

Source: Energy Information Administration.

That means lucky drivers in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio could save money by filling up with E85 blends. They'll still have to contend with shorter range, but it is a feasible option for a select few.

Foolish bottom line
There is hope that cellulosic ethanol refineries that are coming online in the next year will eventually be able to produce fuel at a reduced cost to current corn-based technologies, add to the country's surplus, and make E85 forever cheaper than gasoline. Critics are right to question those claims, especially given years of setbacks for next-generation fuels. Until that dream becomes a reality, the higher costs of driving on E85 in FFVs makes them a long shot for most American families. Better hope Father Zocca gifts your household a 1984 Renault 4, too. 

Automakers spurn E85 for Chinese market
E85 has a long way to go before it creates great investing opportunities for automakers, which is exactly why they're turning to China. With improving standards of living, there are few things that these consumers are likely to purchase with more enthusiasm than cars and trucks. In this brand-new free report, our analysts get out in front of this trend by identifying two automakers that are poised to surge along with China's middle class. If you want to be among the smart investors who get rich from this growing trend, then you'd be well advised to instantly download our free report on the topic by clicking here now.

 


Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (0)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 22, 2013, at 2:04 PM, death316 wrote:

    There is only one thing stopping cars from being efficient and that's big oil companies.

  • Report this Comment On September 22, 2013, at 3:17 PM, E85Prices wrote:

    You can check the prices for E85 at e85prices (com) The National Average Price of E85 is $2.88 vs $3.49 for basic unleaded(E10)

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 9:36 AM, damilkman wrote:

    I'm wondering why the author lists the exact number of E85 stations but not the number of expected Tesla recharging stations. How about an apples to apples comparison? List the E85 coverage as a percentage and define what is coverage. Is that a ten minute drive, 20 minutes, within the cars maximum range? No clue.

    My guess there are entire states without an E85 station. But impossible to know as no units are defined. Or was this left out because the data is unknown?

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 10:40 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @damilkman

    I linked to a map of all E85 stations in the country. As stated in the article, it more feasible (based on range alone) for a driver in the Corn Belt to use a Flex Fuel vehicle than for someone elsewhere in the country. Higher costs make it an unlikely choice, however.

    --Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 11:23 AM, Mega wrote:

    It's also more feasible (on almost every metric) for most drivers to use FFV than Teslas.

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 2:00 PM, damilkman wrote:

    I will be more direct. What is the defintion of within range. I see the map of the US with a blob of yellow markers. If you were to take Telsa's coverage definition what coverage would you get. I'm not trying to be difficult as I agree with your conclusion. I just do not know what the definition of coverage is. If I stick one station in Peoria Illinois does that mean the entire city is covered?

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 2:07 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @MegaShort & @damilkman

    Perhaps I need to dive deeper into the issue in a future article. I think it would be an interesting and worthwhile endeavor. Stay tuned.

    --Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 4:25 PM, JoanneIvancic wrote:

    You improperly give the impression that you have to use E85 in a flex-fuel vehicle. You don't. Thus the "flex." You can use basic E10 or even E0 is that's all you can find. Or, if there are blender pumps and you don't notice any mileage penalty with E30 or E50, you could use those, too. So there should be no range anxiety at all.

    Eventually, when we move to E30 capable, then E30 optimized vehicles, you'll be able to get far better mileage with higher blends of ethanol that provide higher octane and greater efficiency and greater performance. http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/epa-tier-3-proposed-regulati...

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 8:20 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Joannelvanic

    From the article:

    "First things first: You'll need to buy a flex-fuel vehicle, or FFV, that can run on everything from pure gasoline to ethanol blends all the way up to E85."

    Additionally, the article is a thought experiment for if you chose to use "strictly E85".

    --Maxxwell

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