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December 01, 2005   Email to Friend 

Ethanol - Gas That's Good to Grow
By Debra Davis

There isn't much corn growing in Hoover -- Alabama's sixth largest city. But the demand for corn is growing there.

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 gasoline.

"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 (CMAQ) Program.

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 month

"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 added.

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 ethanol?

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 the pump.

"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 www.centralALcc.org.

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