South Dakota ethanol producer calls for wider state use of E30 after Nebraska study demonstrates feasibility
After one year, researchers in Nebraska found vehicles were able to adjust to E30 and that the higher ethanol content had “no observable negative effect on overall vehicle performance."
WATERTOWN — A South Dakota ethanol producer is calling on the state to convert the state fleet to an E30 ethanol blend of gasoline after a Nebraska study found the fuel is a feasible alternative in non-flex fuel vehicles.
The call comes from Glacial Lakes Energy (GLE) — a Watertown-based ethanol producer that produces roughly 360 million gallons of ethanol annually — who saw rising gas prices as an opportunity to renew their efforts to encourage individual and commercial consumers to convert to E30.
Marcy Kohl, director of communications and corporate affairs for GLE, said while its not uncommon for Midwesterners to be supportive of their local agricultural producers, there are multiple common hesitations about using an E30 blend in a vehicle.
Many hesitate to use E30 blends
According to GLE, ethanol blends, such as E30, significantly reduce carbon deposits within a vehicle, which can create a cleaner and more efficient engine. It also reduces carbon emissions from a tailpipe and reduces the need for cancer causing additives in gasoline, like benzene.
“E30 is a 30% blend of ethanol and regular gasoline. Typically, when you pull up to the pump and buy regular unleaded, 87, that is E10,” Kohl said. “Obviously E85 is an 85% blend, so E30 is that 30% blend.”
Despite the benefits, Kohl said many express concerns about their engines accepting higher ethanol blends. To address these concerns, GLE conducted a study in 2016, involving one million gallons of E30, an independent mechanic and over 40 vehicles of various makes, models and years.
“When we did the E30 challenge, we knew we couldn't just go out there as GLE and that anyone was gonna believe us, so we found an auto technician in Watertown, Andy Wicks, who works with high performance engines,” Kohl said. “We tag-teamed and said we want you to be our neutral third party and if something goes wrong in this process, we need you to diagnose it.”
With a mechanic on standby, Kohl said one major concern she heard from consumers was that E30 might cause vapor lock or erode rubber seals within the engine.
“The water vapor lock isn't true. Back in the day, engines then were so much different than they are now. Everything in [most modern] engines is a closed-loop system, so there’s no vapor or water getting in there,” Kohl said. “Another concern is that ethanol is going to ruin rubber seals in the engine. Engines and parts have come so far, and Andy always says to take a seal and throw it in E30, leave it in there for a year and see what happens — nothing.”
Another major concern, especially as gas prices climb, is fuel efficiency.
Many factors go into fuel efficiency, including the way a person accelerates and decelerates, what vehicle they’re driving, where they’re driving and even road conditions. Kohl said while it’s not a promise that fuel efficiency will increase, most decreases to miles per gallon are so minimal, that the cost benefit outweighs any loss of efficiency.
“When we did the E30 study, we had consumers run three tanks consisting of E10 and then had them switch to three tanks of E30. We had vehicles that lost a mile per gallon or two, nothing significant, and we had others who gained,” Kohl said. “EcoBoost engines and high-compression engines saw a pretty significant gain on mileage, and, for the most part, everyone maintained or gained mileage. Those who lost look at price and comparing price to mileage, still came out ahead.”
Kohl, who drives a 2007 Honda Accord, has run her vehicle on E30 since she bought it, and said her mechanics can't tell the difference in her engine other than the fact it's cleaner on the inside.
Nebraska study proves efficacy of E30 in non-flex fuel vehicles
“The EPA typically tests vehicles for 200 miles. We continued monitoring gallons sold, and since 2016, Aberdeen and Watertown are pushing millions of miles and gallons,” Kohl said. “To give (the study) some legs, all of our information was turned to the state of South Dakota and the state of Nebraska, Minnesota, the EPA, Ford, Chevy, you name it.”
After word arrived in Nebraska, a group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducted a study on the long term adaptability and economic feasibility of E30 consumption in non-flex fuel cars.
Flex fuel cars are those that can accept a range of fuels, from premium gasoline to an E85 blend. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated that more than 21 million flex fuel vehicles were on the nation’s roads in 2018.
In the UNL study, conducted by students Adil Alsiyabi and Seth Stroh alongside assistant professor Rajib Saha, researchers monitored conditions of 50 non-flex fuel vehicles in Nebraska’s state fleet as roughly half were fueled with an E15 blend and the rest with an E30 blend.
After one year, they found the vehicles were able to adjust to the higher oxygen content of E30 and that the higher ethanol content had “no observable negative effect on overall vehicle performance."
In terms of cost, the group found that a price difference of more than 2.5% compared to E15 would cause E30 to become the more economically viable fuel. Further, if the Nebraska Transportation Service Bureau and the State Patrol were to fuel their non-flex fuel vehicles with E30 instead of E15, CO2 emissions would decrease by roughly 529 tons per year. Extrapolating, if 10% of the 1.7 million registered vehicles in Nebraska switched to E30, CO2 emissions would be reduced by 64,000 tons annually, they found.
In announcing the results in March 2021, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts touted the research, adding the study helps prove the wide-ranging benefits of E30 to both producers and consumers.
“The research partnership between the state and the university clearly demonstrates that E30 is a safe and reliable fuel for vehicles,” Ricketts said in a press conference. “Ethanol saves drivers money at the pump, is good for air quality, and creates opportunities for our farm families. This study will be a great aid as we advocate for growing the volume of E30 in our nation’s fuel supply. In turn, raising demand for E30 biofuel will benefit Nebraska’s corn growers who supply 35% of their crop to our state’s ethanol industry.”
GLE calls on Gov. Noem to convert South Dakota’s fleet to E30
In Gov. Kristi Noem’s 2019 State of the State address, her first as governor, she shared with lawmakers her desire to transition the state’s fleet toward E30 usage.
“We’ll begin the process of transitioning the state vehicle fleet to E30, further maximizing the use of homegrown fuels and revolutionizing the way we fuel both our vehicles and our economy,” Noem said. “I’ve already met with state government leaders on this initiative and we’re working on a plan.”
While the move could bring cost savings and emission reductions to state governments, all while supporting the state’s economy, the EPA has not yet approved E30 for use in non-flex fuel vehicles.
Roughly 11 months after her State of the State address, Noem, while speaking at an event at a GLE shareholder gathering, said the majority of the state’s fleet is already flex fuel vehicles, and that she hopes to obtain more flex fuel vehicles.
“That was not a policy any previous governor in South Dakota had before,” she said. “56% of the state’s fleet today is flex fuel and we’ll continue to move in that direction.”
Beyond a 2018 Facebook post on Noem’s campaign account, which advocated for transitioning the state fleet to E30 blends, she even proclaimed Feb. 25, 2020 as Premium E30 Day in the state, drawing praise from industry leaders.
“The Governor’s proclamation helps increase public awareness of E30 as the renewable fuel option that also promotes air quality and public health because it replaces cancerous additives,” said Doug Sombke, president of South Dakota Farmers Union. “We appreciate her continued support for higher ethanol blends.”
Though the South Dakota Bureau of Administration was unable to provide the Mitchell Republic with an update as to how many vehicles in the state’s fleet or fueling with E30, Kohl said GLE wants confirmation as to if the state has or will fully convert.
“To our knowledge, all that has been done is flex fuel vehicles have been fueled with E30, which we know is going to work,” Kohl concluded, “but we want to see the entire fleet on E30.”