Ethanol - Gas That's Good to Grow
There isn't much corn growing in
Hoover -- Alabama's sixth
largest city. But the demand for
corn is growing there.
By Debra Davis
In April 2004, Hoover began
using E85 ethanol -- a corn-derived
fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and
15 percent unleaded gas -- in its
police patrol vehicles and other city
automobiles. The switch reduced air
pollution and the city's dependency
on foreign oil. An added bonus
is that it's cheaper than unleaded
"The E85 project actually
started under the previous
administration with the help of
the city council and Central
Alabama Clean Cities," said
Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos.
"Central Alabama Clean Cities (a
non-profit organization that promotes
alternative fuels) helped us
get a grant to install an aboveground
tank and fueling station
at our new Public Safety Center
to accommodate the E85 fuel.
Then we leased Chevrolet Tahoes for
our police department. The Tahoes
come equipped to burn flex fuel --
meaning they can burn E85 or
straight unleaded gasoline."
The city's 12,500-gallon E85 tank
was purchased with an $80,000 grant
from Central Alabama Clean Cities
and the Alabama Partners for Clean
Air in Birmingham. The grant was
obtained through the U.S.
Department of Transportation's
Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality
Hoover leased new Chevrolet
Tahoes for its police department and
Chevrolet pickup trucks for public
works, building inspections, fire and
park maintenance department fleets,
all of which run on E85.
Hoover has nearly 70,000 residents
and is located in Jefferson and
Shelby counties, home to some of
the state's largest and oldest coal
refineries. That area has had one of
the poorest air quality ratings in the
state, limiting its ability to attract
new heavy industries to the area,
according to city officials.
Petelos said some residents question
the city's wisdom of replacing
the police force's Ford Crown
Victorias (long considered the standard
for most law enforcement vehicles)
with Tahoes. Not all engines are
equipped to burn flex fuel, but many
of the newer Chevrolet Tahoes are,
he said. Skeptics quickly changed
their minds about the city's decision
to lease Tahoes when they learned
the SUV could burn E85, he said.
Petelos said in addition to saving
money on fuel -- E85 has been running
about 40 cents per gallon
cheaper than regular unleaded gasoline
-- he hopes the air quality will
improve so new industries can
locate in his city.
"You can see for yourself that
these engines burn cleaner," he
said while running his finger along
the inside of the exhaust pipe of
an officer's Tahoe. "There's no
soot at all on these tail pipes --
that's evidence right there that
what's coming out of the engine is
cleaner than most exhausts."
Alabama corn farmers are
keeping a watchful eye on how a
growing ethanol market could
affect them and more importantly
the price they receive for their
corn. Since Alabama is a corn deficit
state -- meaning it uses more corn
than is grown here -- some farmers
fear corn prices would drop if large
quantities of corn suddenly were
shipped into the area for ethanol production.
The Alabama Farmers
Federation's Wheat & Feed Grains
State Committee has funded a study at Auburn University to determine the impact of distillers' grain, the impact of distillers' grain, a byproduct of the brewing process and the creation of ethanol, on the
state's corn market. Results of that
study could be ready as soon as this
"I really feel like distillers grain is
going to be in our market one way or
the other," said Lawrence County
farmer Brian Glenn who serves as
chairman of the Federation's State
Wheat & Feed Grains Committee.
Glenn is a supporter of alternative
fuel and uses biodiesel, a cleanerburning
diesel fuel made from renewable
sources, on his farm where he
grows corn, wheat and soybeans.
He's optimistic about the future of
alternative fuels as well as what it
could mean for farmers.
"We are in hopes that farmers
would benefit from increased demand
for corn, but that remains to be
seen," he said. "Hopefully, this study
funded by our checkoff dollars will
put to rest some of the speculation."
Ethanol also could reduce some fuel price fluctuations like those created earlier
this year when hurricanes interrupted
fuel supplies to much of the country.
There was some concern that fuel would be in short
supply in several areas of the United States.
But Hoover officials weren't worried. They had purchased their ethanol from High-Tech Fuels in
Birmingham, whose supplier is in Peoria, Ill., and the city's fuel supply was never interrupted or subject to volatile price swings.
Hoover police officers like Mike Weems, who's been with the department for 20 years, said he likes E85 and the SUVs for several reasons.
"Getting in and out of this vehicle
is much easier on your back, especially
when you're carrying about 12
pounds around on your belt," he said
as he gestured to his pistol, handcuffs
and other equipment around his
waist. "But this fuel doesn't have an
odor like gas -- really almost no
smell at all. When you look at it, it's
almost clear like water."
And horsepower isn't an issue as
it was 20-something years ago when
gasohol was first introduced. Gasohol
primarily was used as a gasoline extender and is made from a mixture of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol.
"This thing has more power than
you can imagine," Weems said of the
Tahoe he drives. "It will give you all
you want and them some. If I had to
say anything, I'd say it runs better on
E85 that on straight unleaded gasoline."
That's the beauty of having a flex
fuel engine, according to Hoover
Fleet Management Director Dave
Lindon. If an officer is across town or
out of the county on business, he can
fill up using unleaded gasoline from
an ordinary gas station.
"I did a lot of research on E85
before we made the switch," said
Lindon, who's worked for the city for
nine years. "By the time the change
was made, I was very comfortable
with our decision. Some of our officers
were a little leery at first, but
now, they'll tell you it's their fuel of
choice. It's 105 octane, and you can
really tell a difference when you're
driving with it."
Lindon said the change to E85
hasn't caused any maintenance problems
for the city's 140 vehicles using
ethanol. In fact, the opposite is true.
"We've had virtually no problems
from the engines because we've
eliminated the soot and carbon
that builds up from burning fossil
fuel," he said. "We expect to
be able to use our engine oil
longer, because it's cleaner too.
So by extending the life of the
oil and reducing the wear on
the engine, we're really saving
on maintenance, and the vehicle
should last longer."
Eventually, as other city
vehicles are removed from service
in Hoover, they will be
replaced with flex fuel automobiles,
Petelos said. He hopes
other city and county governments
will follow the example
set by his city.
"The bottom line is we're
going to have to grow more
corn to meet the demand,"
Petelos said. "E85 uses 15 percent
unleaded gas, and if more
people switched to it, we would
immediately start cutting our
dependency on foreign oil, and
prices for straight unleaded gas
would drop. It's going to take every
city, every state and every county
government and every business
organization that has a fleet of vehicles
for this to really work, but I
believe it can be done, and we've
proven that in Hoover."
Currently, Hoover uses about 500
gallons of E85 each day. By the end
of this year, Petelos predicts that figure
will have displaced 100,000 gallons
of gasoline. The financial savings
will increase if gas prices continue
their upward trend. And ethanol is
really just a byproduct of corn, which
can still retain many other uses, he
According to Petelos, a bushel of
corn produces 2.7 gallons of ethanol,
more than 11 pounds of livestock
feed, three pounds of cornmeal for
human consumption and over one
and a-half pounds of corn oil.
What's the downside of using
Petelos answers with a grin and
says, "There's not one." But he would
like to see more businesses and individuals
using the fuel, which would
make it cheaper. Right now, one of
the main cost factors with E85 is having
it shipped from Peoria, Ill.
"I'd like to see an ethanol plant
open in Alabama or at least the
Southeast," Petelos said. "That would
cause our price to drop dramatically."
Petelos and Lindon both say
they've had several inquiries from
other city and county governments
that are interested in their E85 program.
They've received calls from
Homewood, Fairfield, Alabaster,
Pelham and Dothan just to name a
few. E85 has peaked the interest of
state officials as well.
Hoover recently sold a portion of
its public safety center to the
Alabama Department of Forensic
Sciences where the state agency is
building a new forensic lab. With the
E85 fueling station only a few hundred
yards away, state vehicles will
be allowed to purchase the E85 fuel
from the city, too. And the mayor
said he would allow other state vehicles
to purchase fuel from the station
when traveling in the area.
"I'll be surprised if we don't see
more and more stations converting to
E85," Petelos said. "I'll be surprised if
it doesn't take off pretty quickly as
the word gets out."
Lindon said Hoover has proven
that E85 is a viable fuel option. He
said he would like to see public gas
stations replace their mid-grade
unleaded gasoline with E85.
"Most people either buy the
cheapest gas or the most expensive
gas," Lindon said. "Replacing the
mid-grade with E85 would give
motorists a great option and would
require only a slight modification at
"E85 is affordable; it's available,
and it works. Once people try it,
they'll keep buying it."
To learn more about E85, including
a list of distributors and which
vehicles are equipped to burn E85,
visit the National Ethanol Vehicle
Coalition's website at
www.E85Fuel.com or the Central
Alabama Clean Cities website at