For Dan Norte, deciding where to fuel up his Ford F150 pickup is
not always as simple as scanning pump prices. When he heads to Iowa
to see family, the synthetic-oil dealer from Owatonna, Minn., burns
an 87-octane Minnesota-mandated gasoline blend that is 10 percent
corn-based ethanol. It costs about the same as comparable-grade
For the trip back he has a 15-percent option, an Iowa blend rated
at 89 octane that can be up to a nickel a gallon cheaper. But Mr.
Norte has figured out that his savings would probably be erased by
lost m.p.g. from the faster-burning fuel.
With energy independence increasingly cast as a matter of
national security, and the doubling of biofuel output by 2012
mandated by last summer's energy bill, plenty of other Americans are
finding more cause for making complex calculations that involve
Some 90 percent of 1,000 voters surveyed last month by the
nonpartisan Energy Future Coalition in Washington supported the
notion of having one-quarter of US energy demand met by renewables
"We have a new reality," says Ron Cogan, editor of the Green Car
Journal in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "And I think that's changing the
way people look at the vehicles they want to buy and operate on a
"Two years ago, it looked like the alternative-fuels business was
going to atrophy," says Fred Mayes, who tracks renewable-fuel data
for the Energy Information Administration, a quasi-independent arm
of the Department of Energy. "There was no interest, no direction,
no incentives, no major breakthroughs. It was stuck in low gear."
Barriers still exist, including not enough filling stations and a
projected shortfall of ethanol production that will contribute to
higher gas prices this summer, many experts say.
Still, energy remains in an evolutionary mode. Mr. Mayes says
government analysts trying to make projections can barely keep up
with all the emerging options. As gas-electric hybrids fill a gap,
and hydrogen fuel cells remain a holy grail, old-school combustion
engines show signs of hanging on - and leaving fewer smudges -
because of what they can burn.
That has alternative-fuel vehicles merging out of the slow lane
for the near term - and consumers facing more signposts than they
can easily read.
"There are so many balls up in the air," says Mayes. Consider:
Biodiesel made from soy or other forms of biomass; cellulosic
ethanol, derived from corn husks and other organic waste rather than
corn; E85 ethanol that's only 15 percent gasoline; even "petro"
diesel that burns cleaner than the diesel used in the smoke-
belching cars many Americans recall - and that is made cleaner still
by exhaust-treatment technologies like DaimlerChrysler's BlueTec,
announced last month.
Mayes has just returned from a conference at which he heard of a
new "biomass gasification" technology that "can produce ethanol
cheaply in huge quantities from trash, coal, wood, switchgrass -
anything you name that has carbon in it," he says.
Don't expect a federal decree favoring sales of one fuel, like
the legislation of unleaded in the 1970s, experts say. If anything,
Washington might step back and let automakers go nose-to-tailpipe
with states. A federally sponsored panel (the National Academies'
National Research Council) this month strongly urged that states
should have the power to follow California's lead in adopting
emissions standards tougher than the federal ones.
Many automakers have several horses in the alt-fuels race.
Perennial innovator Honda - a leader, with Toyota, in hybrids - also
has its hydrogen FCX and its natural-gas-powered Civic GX, "the
cleanest internal-combustion ever," Mr. Cogan says.
GM, which has pushed ahead with hybrids, has also ramped up
marketing for flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on either straight
gasoline or E85. It sold 270,000 E85-ready vehicles in 2005, says
Sherrie Childers Arb, director of environment and energy
communications at GM, and estimates it will sell 400,000 this year. …