Ethanol use poses dilemma for City of Fort Collins fleet

Is it better to support an imperfect solution or abstain until something better comes along?
That’s the dilemma facing the Fort Collins City Council when it comes to running its fleet of 96 flex-fuel vehicles.

On the one hand, using E85 – a blend of 85 percent denatured ethanol and 15 percent gasoline – reduces the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 535 metric tons a year, as well as other emissions that contribute to ozone production. Larimer and Weld county residents are now required to have their personal vehicles tested annually because of the amount of ozone in the air.

Less air pollution supports the city’s goals of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and traditional fuel use by 20 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. Purchasing policies also require the city to buy hybrid or alt-fuel vehicles whenever possible.

On the other hand, some council members are uncomfortable putting corn-based ethanol in the gas tank. Their concerns center around the amount of water and fertilizer used to grow corn; possible land-use and environmental impacts; and the hotly debated topic of what increased ethanol demand does to global food prices.

Council heard a presentation from the city’s Sustainability Director Bruce Hendee and Natural Resources Department staff about the issue at a Nov. 8 work session. Although no votes are taken in work sessions, the council’s options are to stop using corn-based ethanol altogether; cap usage at present levels; reduce the ethanol blend to E50; or continue to use increasing amounts of E85 while evaluating other fuels as they become available.

In 2010, the city used 62,000 gallons of E85, up from 2,332 gallons in 2007 when it first purchased flex-fuel vehicles. E85 accounts for 8 percent of the city’s total fuel consumption; biodeisel used in Transfort buses and heavy trucks accounts for 38 percent and gasoline 36 percent.

Flex-fuel and biodiesel vehicles are the only options that are not $2,000 to $10,000 more expensive than traditional vehicles.

The city has received a $30,000 grant from the Governor’s Energy Office to construct two E85 fueling stations for its fleet. The four city stations pump E85 containing ethanol produced from locally grown corn by Front Range Energy in Windsor. Fort Collins also purchases E85 from two local suppliers: Western Convenience and Poudre Valley Coop.

Alternative-fuel alternatives
While most observers agree that corn is not the ideal feedstock for ethanol, currently available alternatives are a bit thin.

“There was a lot of research on alternative fuels done in the late 1970s and ’80s, after the oil crisis,” according to Kenneth Reardon, associate head of the chemical and biological engineering department at CSU and site director of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels. “But after that crisis passed, government investment plummeted, and all that research just sat on the shelf until four or five years ago. We lost about 25 years when we could have been working on the problem.”

Total domestic ethanol production in 2010 was 12.3 billion gallons, and preliminary Federal Trade Commission figures show that 2011 production would meet the 15-billion gallon Renewable Fuel Standard set by Congress in 2007. By 2022, the RFS will be 36 billion gallons, with corn ethanol capped at 15.2 billion gallons.

Biofuels represent less than 10 percent of the nation’s annual gasoline consumption, according to the Department of Energy.

About 160 firms across the country produce ethanol, but not much of it is sold to the general public. Poudre Valley Coop reported at-the-pump sales from its four E85 hoses of only 400 gallons in the entire month of November. Without the Fort Collins fleet contract, offering the E85 option would no longer make economic sense.

The market for ethanol has helped the state’s corn farmers make more economic sense out of their operations. Mark Sponsler, executive director of Greeley-based Colorado Corn, said the ethanol plants operating in Sterling and Yuma as well as Windsor have increased the price growers get for their crop.

“After five decades of prices between $1 and $2 per bushel at the farm gate, growers are now getting closer to $5 per bushel,” he said. “That allows them not only to plant more crops, but in some cases to keep on farming, rather than selling up their land for other uses.”
It has also added a necessary certainty to the market, Sponsler said.

In 2007 Congress also set an RFS for ethanol made from feedstocks other than corn. It was subsequently reduced for 2012 because few commercial-scale cellulosic facilities are in operation.
In Brazil, ethanol is made from sugar, and “energy cane,” along with domestic oil production, helped the country stop importing oil in 2006. The rapid conversion of rainforest to cane fields, however, is causing environmental concerns.

Sugar beets, a longtime staple of the Northern Colorado economy, can also produce ethanol. Research in Canada has shown that converting beets to ethanol is six times more efficient than corn, and the process can produce more water than it consumes.

Tom Schwartz, executive director of the Beet Sugar Development Foundation in Denver, said it wouldn’t be difficult for his members to convert some of their crops to fuel instead of sugar.
“But everyone’s factories are already operating at capacity,” he said. “The price of ethanol would have to go up, maybe about 50 percent, and they would have to have some certainty that the price would stay up, to be able to invest in the plant expansion that would be needed. I’d love to see it, but it’s not in the cards right now.”

Why not use the millions of trees in Colorado killed by the mountain pine beetle as a feedstock? The technology exists to make ethanol on a commercial scale from woody biomass.

“It would be great to see something positive come out of the pine-beetle epidemic,” CSU’s Reardon said. “But the challenge is collecting the trees. A lot of them are a long way from a processing plant, and a lot of infrastructure (like roads) would have to be built.”

So what’s a city to do?
The Fort Collins Natural Resources staff and the Air Quality Advisory Board recommended that the city continue using E85 on its current trajectory until other alternative fuels become locally viable, evaluating its options annually.

The issue is not set to come back before city council before August.

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