Pushing NASCAR towards e85 ethanol

Brent Dewar, GM’s vice president of field sales, service and parts, worked for General Motors in Brazil in the 1990s. He received a firsthand look at the country’s successful switch from a petroleum-based economy to ethanol.

Dewar would like to see the same thing happen in the United States of America, and he says NASCAR can help out. He is lobbying NASCAR officials to switch from gasoline to ethanol in their racecars.

“We would embrace it… We think it would be great on a lot of fronts, because obviously it would send a signal to the public. A lot of people don’t understand the benefits of ethanol,” said Dewar. “Other racing series are already embracing renewable fuel.”

At the start of this season, the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series will race on 100 percent pure ethanol. Later, the American LeMans Series will race on a 10 percent ethanol blend.

Dewar and others in the garage said NASCAR should explore alternative fuels — and no, not the same kind that Michael Waltrip was caught with in Daytona.

“Without a doubt, I think we should look into it,” says driver Jeff Burton. “Although our impact on environmental issues is probably very, very small from an actual use standpoint, from a marketing standpoint, we could have a major impact.”

Kyle Petty says NASCAR’s marketing horsepower might drive alternative fuels to the mainstream, helping consumers get over the negative image of hippies playing with their 1980s Mercedes to make them run on vegetable oil blends.

“I think once you start seeing alternative fuels show up in places like racing and places where you least expect them, then you don’t think about that guy with the Volkswagen van that runs off of whatever,” Petty stated.

NASCAR is taking a step in the direction of environmental responsibility by getting the lead out, catching up with a change consumers made in the 1980s by switching from leaded to unleaded fuel.

Spokesman for NASCAR, Ramsey Poston, said officials are willing to consider using renewable fuels, too.

“In terms of looking at the next step, obviously we’re open to options,” Poston stated.

Petty figures the whole country will switch to renewable fuels eventually, so why would not NASCAR and its official fuel supplier, Sunoco.

“You would like to think that they would take a leading role in it, especially through Sunoco’s involvement,” Petty said. “Because I know Sunoco’s taken a huge step in that direction.”

NASCAR teams also would have to modify their cars to run on ethanol, but Dewar said the switch wouldn’t be a “major investment.” And he said it ultimately would be worth the hassle.

Still, even proponents do not portray ethanol as a magic wand. Despite its renewable benefits, it can provide slight performance advantages. It is not imported from politically volatile countries and it burns much cleaner. The only drawback, ethanol is not as efficient as gasoline.

Today’s cars can run on 90 percent gasoline/10 percent ethanol blends, E10, cars have to be specially equipped or modified to run on purer blends of ethanol.

General Motors and other companies sell “flex fuel” vehicles that run on gasoline or E85, an 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline blend. Unfortunately, E85 is not widely distributed in America.

Gas stations in Brazil carry both regular gas and 100% ethanol. Most of the Brazil’s automobiles run on either of the two fuels. Given changes in fuel prices, Brazilian consumers can make an informed choice every time they fill their tank. Gasoline is about 20 percent more efficient than ethanol. If ethanol is 20 percent cheaper than gasoline, ethanol makes both econimic and environmental sense. Dewar was in Brazil in December and explained how ethanol was half the price of gasoline.

Innovations can also drive the price of ethanol down, he said. Most ethanol producted in the U.S. is made from corn. Ethanol is made from sugar cane in Brazil. Some researchers indicate certain kinds of grass and wood chips could be better to make ethanol. Ethanol Research is also working to develop enzymes, that break down waste into ethanol. In five years, Dewar expects cars to run on recycled trash.

With all that in mind, Petty says now it is time for NASCAR to go green. “The global warming thing, and all the things that are written about that, a lot more people are aware of the fact that we do need to do something,” Petty declared.

GM wants more E85 stations

The auto industry executive says the ethanol industry must work to make higher blends of ethanol more readily available as an increasing number of car buyers begin driving flex-fuel vehicles.

Mary Beth Stanek, GM’s director for Environment and Energy, comments that the company remains committed to flex-fuel technology, but also is working on the development of electric hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Since there is only so much funding available for research and development “we need to see a corresponding of support from the (e85) industry” to make sure the fuels are available to all drivers and that the flex-fuel automobiles “are experiencing the fuel,” said Stanek, who manages GM’s partnerships with ethanol producers.

“We’re not going to work on power trains when we don’t have fuel for it, and we’re certainly going to make sure that it’s economical for consumers as well,” she told many of the renewable fuels industry leaders and media who attended a biofuels forum put on by Successful Farming magazine on Tuesday.

Making available E85, an 85 percent ethanol – 15 percent gasoline blend, should not be “as hard as people are making it,” Stanek said.

“I’m not saying it’s easy, but we can all work together to get more E85 out there,” she said. “I just don’t feel it’s insurmountable.”

While the ethanol industry frequently announces the opening of new E85 pumps, the blend really is “a classic chicken and the egg” scenario, said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association.

To make E85 a mainstream product, he said there needs to be vehicles that can burn E85, the infrastructure to make it and transport it, and the need for more technology to produce enough ethanol to supply the higher E85 demands. That includes more development and funding to cellulosic ethanol production, which breaks down any organic material from various plants, not just corn, to produce ethanol.

GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler have said they plan to have half of annual vehicle production be E85 flexible fuel or biodiesel capable by 2012. For the Detroit based GM, that means ramping up production from 400,000 of the E85 flex-fuel vehicles each year up to 800,000.

The cost of the items that help vehicles use E85 ranges from $150 to $500. But for auto manufacturers, Stanek said the investment into the technology and research to make the autos run correctly on E85 is “quite expensive.”

“It’s not the parts in the box, it’s about the investment into the engineering expense,” she declared. “We are willing to do that, and we’re going as fast as we can.”

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