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Ethanol: The Blend Wall Looms

Posted by: John Carey on December 5, 2008

As if ethanol producers don’t have enough woes already, there’s a new problem looming. The industry has been hit by plunging oil prices, the recession, and the perception that the use of corn to make fuel has whacked consumers with higher food prices. Now comes the problem of the `blend wall.’

Here’s what that means. Right now, ethanol is added to (i.e. blended in with) about 70% of the nation’s 135 billion gallons of gasoline used in a year. But the blended ethanol/gasoline fuel contains no more than 10% ethanol (a fuel called E10), thanks to current rules and automakers’ warnings that using higher percentages of ethanol in fuel would void vehicle warranties.

Realistically, ethanol will never make it into all of the U.S. gasoline supply. So say it gets into 90% of those 135 billion gallons. That means the total annual market for ethanol is limited to a bit over 12 billion gallons (and less if the recession cuts into gasoline use). Yet the industry already produced 9 billion gallons in 2008, with more plants being built. Next year, the capacity will jump to well beyond 12 billion gallons. As an internal industry memo warns, “if we don’t increase the base blend of ethanol beyond E10, the industry will crash into the blend wall in early 2009.”

That’s why one of the many battles now being waged in Washington is a push by ethanol companies and their trade groups to boost the allowable amount of ethanol in gasoline to 15%.

Reader Comments


December 16, 2008 11:01 AM

Is there any gain to the driver in having 15% ethanol rather than 10%? I know it's added as an oxygenator--but at some point, the benefits of added oxygen peak. Where's the peak? What other benefits, other than happy corn farmers and happy ethanol processors, might conceivably come from this? I'm rather doubtful.

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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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