How do I save $$ and save on CO2? Looking at the hard data on biofuels, hybrids, all-electric, and gasoline

May 21, 2015 |

propel-e85What’s the best way to maximize the value for your transportation dollar — cost per mile, and in delivering CO2 emission reductions?

If you guessed “all electric”, dial again. But if you opted for the little-understood world of “E85”, you’re in for a treat.

Good value, isn’t that important to you? Many readers tell us they like to enjoy good value at the pump, and also would like to make a positive contribution to the environment, but want to get good value while doing so.

So, let’s look at the hard data.

We looked at a couple of good data sources — spot wholesale fuel prices and new car MSRPs as reported by the US government. And, we looked at same-station gasoline (E0), E10 and E85 prices from the esteemed, and wholesale E85 prices as reported by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. We based everything on Iowa fuel prices so that we could give an accurate apples-to-apples read on wholesale-to-retail mark-ups.

Just for fun, we compared the cost over 100,000 miles (excluding maintenance) for a Nissan Leaf all-electric, a Toyota Prius running E10, a Chevrolet Cruze running either E85 or pure unleaded gasoline (E0). We picked the Prius and Cruze as they are same-class 4-door sedans.

Fuel Cost per mile for ICU engines

Bottom line, ethanol offers a better deal for fuels. E10 checks in with a 7% savings compared to straight (E0) gasoline, and E85 offers a whopping 36% per-mile savings. Note, that’s cost per mile, not cost per gallon — we’ve factored in the lower energy density of ethanol.


Comparing hybrids, electrics and renewable fuels on overall cost

When it comes to buying a hybrid or all-electric, the running costs are generally quite a bit lower, mostly because electric motors are more efficient than low-compression ICU engines that run gasoline/ethanol blends.

The offset, however, is in the cost of the vehicle, primarily the high battery costs.

Over 100,000 miles, the Prius and Leaf don’t quite catch up on cost.  A Cruze running on E85 beats the Prius running E10 by $9,058, and beats a Leaf by $8,861. That’s a lot of dough.

Comparing hybrids, electrics and renewable fuels on CO2 reductions

When it comes to buying a hybrid or all-electric, the emissions are low but these are not zero-emission vehicles, because you have to “green the grid” as well as “kill the tailpipe”  to have a true zero emissions vehicle.


When it comes to CO2 emissions over 100,000 miles, a Leaf is the winner with 20.12 tons of CO2e, but the Cruze running E85 checks in second with 26.57 tons, the E10-running Prius at 27.33 tons. They all beat the Cruze sedan running staright (E0) gasoline, which emits 35.31 tons.

The bottom line? If CO2 emissions is your only goal, the Leaf is your ticket. But most people would be surprised that a Cruze running E85 actually performs better than the top-selling electric hybrid.

Looking at “cost per ton” of CO2 emissions reduction

If you want to make a contribution to CO2 reduction but you want to get the most value per invested dollar, that’s where we bring the costs together with the emissions. That’s the gold standard — where’s the best value?

Bottom line, with the Prius you pay a whopping $919 in extra cost (compared to driving a standard sedan and dricing straight gasoline), for every ton of CO2 you reduce. So, you’re making a contribution to the environment, but there’s pain in the wallet.

With a Leaf, the economics are better on CO2. Because the emissions are so much lower, you pay $419 for every ton of CO2 you reduce. Much better.

But look at the Cruze running E85. Not only do you cut emissions by more than 8 tons over 100,000 miles, you save while doing so. So, you earn money while helping the environment, to the tune of $196 per ton saved. That’s a savings of $1115 per ton of CO2 reduction, compared to the Prius driving on E10.

So, there you have it. E85 is a clear winner on fuel cost per mile, and is the only technology that saves money for the driver while delivering a CO2 reduction benefit for the environment. That’s the hard data, though it may represent an inconvenient truth for many.

(The data sources here are: for the “well-to-wheel” emissions comparison, the Natural Resources Defense Council; and the US Energy Information Administration for the power gen mix).

Why is Everyone Yakking about E85?

E85 yakking

You can download a Digest illustrated guide to the E85 controversy, here.

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