Hi Octane Fans and Ethanol Haters

May 4, 2017 |

Now it is springtime and the water is high on the Crooked River in north central Oregon, but you’ll find the anglers there all the same. If they are not casting today  on the most beautiful stretch of rainbow trout-heavy river in America, you can find them unlocking the secrets caches of the caddisfly, and they’ll test some of those real-deal caddis against their best tied flies.

This is US highway 26, which eastwards out of the metropolitan centers of the west coast offer a hilly, verdant introduction to the disciplines and delights of fly fishing.

One of the greatest and most unexpected bonuses of an eastward journey along Highway 26 is that the vehicle mileage unexpectedly improves. Especially if you happen to be piloting an SUV — and big AWD vehicles are de rigeur for residents of the Western mountain ranges who must from time to time navigate 3-meter snowdrifts and roads that require an all-wheel drive vehicle, and often snow chains as well.

Mileage magic

There’s no real magic to the better mileage, but it’s welcome.

First of all, you’ll get the highway miles that you never seem to fully capture on the coast, amidst all the stops and starts that urbanization imposes from the traffic lights to the traffic snarls. That jump can be dramatic — and a thirty percent jump in fuel economy is pretty common for highway miles.

But there’s an extra kick in the mileage that you might not have expected, and that’s in the altitude itself:

In the case of gasoline engines, the higher altitude theoretically leads to lower fuel consumption due to lower throttle frictions due to the wider throttle opening. From the other side, as the air is less dense at higher altitudes, the vehicle aerodynamic is changed and this also leads to lower fuel consumption 

And there’s a third kick – high octane gives you more power, too. Sliding along the coast roads in a small sedan, you’d hardly notice it, especially with an E10 fuel. You might notice, if you are a sensitive driver, that when you put in E85 into your sedan and try and accelerate from a standing start, the car really pops — or, you get your usual acceleration without quite so much flooring of the gas pedal.

In the high plains, there are all those up and downs of the folded western mountains — and that thirst for a little power that an SUV needs to get rolling when on an incline — well, it can help with fuel consumption and driving a high-octane fuel can make a small difference in the pocketbook — and also in the sensation that there’s, as Exxon used to put it, a tiger in your tank.

For all those reasons, it’s reasonably surprising to have read about one driver’s journey along the road from Idaho Falls in into the wonders of Jackson Hole — also a journey from ethanol indifference to becoming an ethanol-hater.

It’s become something of a cult in recent years. In the US and Canada, according to puregas.com, there are some 12,000 outlets that sell ethanol-free gasoline. That’s almost four times the number of outlets that sell a high-ethanol blend such as E15, E30 or E85.  And these days you can buy anti-ethanol swag — bumper stickers and t-shirts are the more popular items.

The Path to Ethanol Loathing

But here’s the tale our friend tells.

In late July 2013 my wife and I were on a 13 day road trip, The second night we stayed in Idaho Falls. The next morning when leaving I stopped at a Sinclair station and noticed they sold 93 octane Premium with no ethanol. Since I was down to below a 1/4 of a tank I decided to give it a try. I have a 2005 Nissan Murano and on that trip had a Thule cargo box on top. We had been averaging 20-22 mpg on 91 octane gas with ethanol. When I refueled again in Jackson Hole Wyoming, I couldn’t believe my increase on mpg. It had gone up to 28 mpg. I checked it 3 times to make sure it was correct. This one stop for gas made a believer out of me. 

As an experienced western driver would tell you, it’s 90 miles or so from Idaho Falls to Jackson Hole, and the driver in question is piloting a Nissan Murano SUV with a tank that holds 21.7 gallons. The refueling would have changed the mix from something like E10 to around E2 or E3, and added a little less than 1 percent to the energy density. There’s a slight octane bump, and it looks like we’re traveling quite a bit in the high country — he refueled a 21 gallon tank that was recording 28 MPG. There’s some big country miles on the wide-open highways.

What does a Murano usually do? Eerily enough, a 2017 Murano is rated at 21 for city driving and 28 for highway driving.

In our case, this is a 2005 Murano? The average mileage for a 2005 Murano is 18.7 MPG (based on a data set of 989 fuel ups and 314,890 miles tracked).

What does the data tells us? More or less, there’s not much in the energy density here. A reasonable conclusion is that we are seeing a little kick from extra octane and a shift to country miles. That’s the kind of one-time benefit that, generally, anyone enjoys.  You note the gain, smile at good fortune, and go back to watching the bison.

But here, we saw the birth of a believer.

There’s an emotion attached to this fuel. Some people seem to love it, others to hate it — not so much relating back to hard data as much as hard attitudes and values into which a simple re-fuel seems to fit.

Values are driving habits, it appears. Hate government regulation – have that “Don’t Tread on Me?” attitude. Ethanol blending mandates are a well-suited target for frustration. If you look at a map of ethanol-free outlets, you see an absolutely enormous number of them in the Upper Southeast — the I-85 corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte, and the I-81 corridor north from Chattanooga are packed with them. Yet, nothing in Chicago — and there are plenty of boat owners around Lake Michigan and plenty of lawns, too.

It’s not weedwacker country — the Upper Southeast, that is — but it is the reddest of red-state country.

The E85prices brigade and the hard data on price

Originally run as a crowd-sourced, privately-owned website, E85prices.org was ultimately acquired by the Renewable Fuels Association and tracks the spread between various ethanol blends and ethanol-free gasoline.

Today, for example, E85prices.com reports that the average E85 price nationally is $1.97, compared to a $2.38 price for standard E10 blends, and $2.62 for ethanol-free gasoline.  E30 blends — considered by several experts to be an “optimal blend” of ethanol in terms of engine efficiency, checks in at $2.01 per gallon.

Now, a car that travels 30 miles on a gallon of gasoline can expect to travel around 29 miles per gallon on E10 fuel unless there is a specialized engine that can take advantage of the high octane content to improve engine compression — and that can substantially reduce the mileage gap.

So, it’s interesting. If you can travel 29 miles for $2.38 (the price of E10), and 30 miles for $2.62 (the price of ethanol-free gasoline), the driver is paying $0.24 for that last mile.

Over a year spent traveling 13,000 miles (that’s the average in the US) in a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon (for E0, and 24 mpg for E10 — that’s the US average), the E10 user will spend $1289 for fuel. The ethanol-free customer will spend $1362.

So, it’s $73 extra to wave the flag of ethanol freedom, more or less.

High Octane — the Racer’s Edge

There’s a flip side to all this, and that’s a small but growing cadre of high octane aficionados — many of these are converts from racing fuels.

“The benefits of using E85 such as increasing power, reducing emissions, along with the lower fuel prices made the switch inevitable,” said Propel customer Tony “Speedmaster” Lee. “The overall increase in horsepower and torque was like night and day between 91 (gasoline) and E85. The E85 made it so that the tuner could squeeze more power, raise the boost, and operate at a lower engine temp.”

“E85 is truly connecting with today’s smart, savvy drivers who want more value from their fuel than gasoline is giving them,” said Rob Elam, CEO of Propel.  “Millennials are our fastest growth segment, as more drivers of high performance cars are seeking a powerful fuel to meet their needs.”

Get High! The Hi-Octane Society

Over the next month and half, Propel Fuels will host 6 stops of the 105 Octane Tour around Northern California. At each stop, along with the attractive lower fuel price, Propel will give away swag, answer questions about E85 and sign members up for the Hi-Octane Society.

Here’s the technical rationale. E85′s octane rating is considerably higher than premium gasoline (105 vs. 91 octane) and is comparable to racing fuel, increasing vehicle horsepower and acceleration, especially in higher compression engines.

Bottom line, you get around the track a little faster with high-octane fuels.

And, there’s a low-price lure. Propel Fuels will offer Flex Fuel E85 for $1.05 per gallon at several retail locations to drive awareness of the fuel’s high octane rating which provides increased power and acceleration, while reducing emissions and air pollution. E85 is a clean-burning alternative to petroleum gasoline that is performance-optimized for use in Flex Fuel vehicles.

Dates and Propel locations for the 105 Octane Tour are limited to Sacramento, the home of Propel — there are five more in total.

●      May 10th, 10am-2pm  – Florin  (8062 Florin Rd.)

●      May 17th, 10am-2pm  – Roseville  (999 Sunrise Ave.)

●      June 7th, 10am-2pm  – Placerville (151 Main St.)

●      June 14th, 10am-2pm  – West Sacramento/Harbor Point (705 Harbor Pointe Pl.)

The Bottom Line

The signs that bipartisanship is eroding over renewable fuels is unmistakable. We see changes in mileage that can be easily and readily assigned to changes in driving conditions — why are people so upset about it? And we might point out that there’s an octane booster in there, even for pure gas. If it’s ETBE, it may be made from gasoline but it still is an oxygenate, contains oxygen and so on and so on.

But what’s the anger about? John Muir once wrote that man might go up into the mountains from a hundred walks of life, but he came down a conservationist, filled with the rapture of what had been seen.

What brings a man down these mountains filled with indignation about his fuel economy?  It’s weird. Ethanol-free gasoline is feeling like a political touchstone — a symbol of resistance, a symbol of a point of view.

We used to see it the other way around.

Biodiesel customage approached cult-like status at various times over the years. There was a period when Veggie Vans had an edgy cool, and hippies and rockers alike would roll in on biodiesel-powered vehicles to festivals like Burning Man or SXSW. That wave perhaps peaked in 2009 when the first cut of Josh Tickell’s film FUEL won the Audience Award for best Documentary at the Sundance Festival. But that ardor has cooled. The rise of the Hi-Octane Society appears to be more about ethanol’s performance attributes – about racing fuels.

Why the anger, the suspicion? It’s a trend to watch not only for renewable fuels but for anyone who measures the rise or fall of extremism in any of its guises.

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