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Data Surprise: Biofuels Still Beating Electrics on Cost, Emissions

Submitted by on October 3, 2017 – 10:01 amNo Comment

by Jim Lane (Biofuels Digest)  Electrics are improving on emissions and cost, but not enough to make driving an electric car the smart choice for consumers looking to save time and reduce environmental impacts. According to a new analysis, biofuels still reign. If you’re driving an electric car, you’re driving the grid, and the grid isn’t all that green, yet.

Why the Surprise?

How is this possible? Didn’t this landmark study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, over a 15-year vehicle lifetime, a battery electric vehicle would reduce emissions by half compared to conventional gasoline-based vehicles. However, there are two myths buried in the assumptions in the survey.

MYTH #1: The only alternative to a battery (or other) electric vehicle is an all-gasoline based vehicle. That’s a false choice.

MYTH #2: Owners keep their shiny new cars for 15 years. They don’t.

The first two myths lead to MYTH #3: Battery electric vehicles are a better deal on economics and the environment. But let’s look at the hard data.

REALITY #1: The entire US almost without exception runs on 10 percent ethanol blends, not straight gasoline. And drivers have options to run on 50 percent, 85 percent, even 100 percent biofuels.

REALITY #2. Car owners keep their new cars for 6.5 years. This becomes important, because by all accounts electric vehicles are more cost, energy and emissions intensive in manufacture. It is only in the out years that they catch up even with gasoline-powered vehicles on emissions. Now, someone is going to mention that the average car is 11 years old. But that takes us to a second owner, a second capital purchase to amortize. And besides, 11 isn’t 15, speaking of years.

BTW, we’ve not cooked the books to present the most favorable case. We could have selected cellulosic fuel technology that offers 60% or higher emissions savings — or looked at the much higher mileage (and lower emissions) associated with biodiesel. Some cellulosic technologies offer negative emissions — they sequester more than they emit.

On price, the lowest-cost option is a Cruze running on E85 conventional ethanol — which also reduces emissions compared to a Prius running on E10 fuel. And, the lowest emissions come from running a Chevy Cruze on cellulosic E85 ethanol. (Note, we’ve drawn the latest MSRPs from the manufacturers and the latest September fuel price data from

The Bottom Line

Electrics represent an important technological shift. But we have a long way to go. Modernizing the grid, improving its emissions, and integrating it better with the transport sector is a good idea — we’ve run a lot of commentary on that topic. Here’s a good example.   READ MORE

Biofuels vs EVs: The Union of Concerned Scientists responds (Biofuels Digest)


Excerpt from Biofuels vs EVs: The Union of Concerned Scientists responds (Biofuels Digest):  The Biofuels Digest piece has significant errors in its calculations on emissions:

  • Biofuels Digest suggests it makes sense to consider only the first owner’s emissions in calculating emissions benefits. We disagree. Cars pollute over their whole lives, regardless of how many times they change hands, so it makes sense to calculate emissions benefits over the car’s lifetime. Choosing an arbitrarily low lifetime (less than 7 years) biases the calculation in favor of conventional vehicles.
  • Our calculations for EV emissions were based on the average grid where the cars are being charged. The Biofuels Digest comparison is a very optimistic scenario of a car running on advanced biofuel with a 50% GHG reduction.       Very few cars run on 100% biofuel, the closest they come is Flex-Fuel vehicles (FFVs) that run on E85 (which is a mix of 51-85% ethanol and gasoline).   Very few FFVs run on E85 most of the time, and the ethanol in E85 is mostly corn ethanol, not an advanced biofuel that meets a 50% GHG reduction as Biofuels Digest assumes. So, despite claiming that the 50% GHG reduction is conservative, the 50% GHG savings is very much an optimistic case. To fairly compare optimistic scenarios, we should consider that many EV drivers have also installed solar panels, and an EV charged on solar power virtually eliminates operating emissions.


The emissions associated with driving an EV are coming steadily down, and depend upon where you get your power. Here is our latest update.


The Biofuels Digest piece also has errors in calculations of the relative cost of driving and owning an EV versus an FFV running on E85:


  • The savings of driving a Chevy Cruze using E85 at current prices does not take into consideration the reduced MPGe while driving on E85. The E85 prices cited are about 23% lower than E10, which is about the same as the reduction of MPGe compared to E10. This means it costs about the same to drive a mile on E85 as E10, not 10% less as Biofuels Digest claims.
  • The price listed for the Nissan Leaf is an MSRP which bears little relationship to the actual purchase price, once State and Federal tax credits and other incentives are applied.

The cost of fueling an EV is much lower than a gasoline powered car or an FFV, and the price has been remarkably stable compared to volatile oil and ethanol prices. 

Instead of FFVs, biofuel advocates should focus on a future that includes using ethanol to maximize efficiency as part of a high octane gasoline blend and in sectors like aviation where electrification is more challenging. The bioeconomy also has a key role to play in biomaterials, and as part of carbon removal strategies, as I described in a recent article on the bioeconomy in a world without carbon pollution. Biofuels and the broader bioeconomy have enormous opportunities in a low carbon future, but with GMEuropean countriesChina and California looking beyond internal combustion engines for light duty transport, doubling down on FFVs and E85 is a road to nowhere.

Cutting oil use and transportation emissions is a big job and a major opportunity for both renewable fuels, renewable electricity and electric vehicles. The hostility of EPA Administrator Pruitt and his friends in the oil industry make this job harder and more important than ever before, and advocates of renewable fuels and electric vehicles need to work together to keep us on track to a clean transportation future.  READ MORE

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