Escalade Goes FlexFuel – Should You Care?

June 6, 2008
All versions of the 2009 Cadillac Escalade will be FlexFuel capable, goes the morning news release from General Motors. That means anything from pure gasoline to an 85 percent ethanol/15 percent blend of petrol.

That will bring to 15 the number of FlexFuel vehicles in the giant automaker's fleet next year, a sizable jump from the 11 out there already. And GM has committed to making half its U.S. production capable of running on ethanol by 2012; it's already producing over a million FlexFuel vehicles annually.

We should stress FlexFuel capable. The reality is that almost no one actually uses alcohol-based fuels, despite the incredible hype these petroleum alternatives have received, in recent years.

Why? Well, for one thing, the fuel simply isn't all that easy to find. A lunch conversation with GM's biofuel spokesman earlier this week revealed that there are a grand total of about 1,600 service stations in the entire U.S. capable of pumping the stuff, compared with 100,000 that can serve up regular gasoline.

"The success of E85 as an alternative fuel depends on having the fuel readily available and having a range of cars and trucks that can use it," said GM Vice President of Environment, Energy and Safety Policy Beth Lowery.

With FlexFuel models like the Escalade, GM is aiming to solve the latter problem. Tackling the availability issue is tougher, though the automaker also addressed that in recent months, signing deals with two new ethanol producers. Both, notably, will derive the liquid through the new cellulosic process. Traditionally, ethanol has been distilled from food stuffs, like sugar cane or corn, much like old-fashioned moonshiners.

That's becoming a serious problem, and earning ethanol a surprisingly bad rap from environmentalists and advocates for the world's poor. The diversion of food for fuel has been one of the big reasons why we've seen a global run-up in the price of food staples. Using corn, in particular, has been criticized because it requires so much energy--and water--to produce, so the savings, in terms of imported petroleum, aren't nearly as much as you'd imagine. Even sugar cane, which can be converted to alcohol far more efficiently, is a problem, as farmers are gobbling up massive chunks of Brazilian rain forest to slake that country's thirst for ethanol.

The cellulosic process is more promising, at least on paper. It requires less water and energy in, and produces more ethanol out, and it relies largely on agricultural scraps and other wastes, like used cardboard. So, if it can be fully scaled up for mass production, it promises to obviate the food-for-fuel crisis.

In other words, a lot of "if"s: if we can switch to cellulosic, if we can get more E85 pumps, if we can get more FlexFuel cars on the road. The last question is the only one clearly being answered. Until then, it's uncertain whether ethanol is a nice idea that doesn't really matter to the average motorist.

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