Despite some concern that the biofuel gold rush is waning, it appears now is still a good time to jump on the corn-based ethanol bandwagon. There is the 51 cent per gallon ethanol producer tax credit, an energy bill in the Senate that, if passed, would provide fuel economy credits for Flex Fuel vehicles, and now a new study released by the American coalition for ethanol has found that "certain ethanol blends can provide better fuel economy than gasoline." While this is certainly good news for the ethanol industry, the environmental and social ramifications of corn-based ethanol production, which we've covered here, here here, and here, are far less certain.
The study found that E20 and E30 (20%-30% ethanol, 70%-80% gasoline) blends of ethanol, provide modest increases in fuel economy of 1%-15% compared to gasoline, depending on the vehicle. Additionally, the mid-level blends significantly reduced other emissions such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. It was previously thought that ethanol's lower energy density (or Btu value) translates into worse fuel economy, but the report indicates that at certain blends, vehicles can achieve better mileage than what the Btu value would predict. Another surprising finding was that even "standard, non-flex-fuel vehicles can operate on blends beyond E10."
But before we all plant some corn and fill 'er up, we have to keep in mind that pesky life cycle analysis, which has consistently shown ethanol to provide only a modest decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, and even then we don't have enough corn to meet both food and fuel demands. Besides, it's not like we are lacking attractive alternatives: efficiency, electricity, plug-in hybrids, hydrogen, and cellulosic ethanol, to name a few.