Use of alternative-fuel cars promoted Government, farmers tout value of autos powered by ethanol, other substances


June 02, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

As federal regulations require more and more government-owned vehicles to run on alternative fuel, Maryland corn producers are trying to make sure ethanol isn't left out of the trend.

A fleet of 14 Chevrolet Malibu sedans, redesigned by university students to run on ethanol-based fuel, made a pit stop at the Paul Baker Farm in Dickerson, in Montgomery County, yesterday. The cars and students were on their way to a national competition in Washington, and the Maryland Grain Producers Association was on hand to hail their efforts.

Although corn produced in Maryland isn't used in ethanol production, increased demand for ethanol raises corn prices nationwide, said Pat McMillan, assistant to the state's secretary of agriculture. When corn is used in ethanol production, it raises the price of corn by about 45 cents per bushel, he said, which averages out to an extra $20 million for Maryland farmers each year.

"We have a keen interest in promoting the use of ethanol," McMillan said. "It means a lot for the bottom line."

The GM and Department of Energy-sponsored competition had students reconfigure the cars so they would run on what the industry calls E-85 -- fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent regular gasoline. The winners will be announced today.

While the students' cars can only run on E-85, a more popular alternative is a flexible-fuel vehicle. Flexible-fuel cars and trucks can run on either E-85 or regular gasoline, or a mixture of the two. The driver doesn't have to worry about which is used; the car's computer tells it what kind of fuel is in the tank and it automatically makes any needed adjustments.

Flexible-fuel cars are also attractive because in today's market, where alternative-fuel stations are not prevalent, they won't leave a driver stranded in a town that only offers gasoline.

As dictated by the 1992 Energy Policy Act, half of all new cars purchased by federal agencies must be able to use alternative fuel. That number will jump to 75 percent in fiscal year 1999. The law says that to the extent it's practical, the vehicles must use alternative fuels.

The law also mandates that states buy alternative-fuel vehicles for fleets that will be used in areas with relatively high pollution: Baltimore, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's counties all fall within that guideline, said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

The association is working with the state to convince filling stations to offer E-85. It is not available anywhere in Maryland, although several stations can be found in other states, mainly in the Midwest.

"We will probably offer the stations some financial incentive if they agree to keep it for five years," she said. "It costs about $50,000 to put in a new tank, although I do not expect we'll be putting up that much."

The University of Maryland, College Park has already jumped on the alternative-fuel train. It has 25 E-85 vehicles, about a dozen cars that can run on a methanol fuel and 10 compressed natural gas vehicles. All can use gasoline.

Victor Chiariello, the university's director of motor transportation, said he's more excited about the E-85 vehicles now that Hoot's association is promoting ethanol in the area. Currently the university's vehicles that are ethanol and methanol compatible are using regular gasoline -- defeating the entire purpose of the car. Compressed natural gas is currently available here on a limited basis, he said.

Although natural gas burns cleaner than ethanol-based gasoline, it costs about $4,000 to retrofit a vehicle to run on the gas. But Ford Taurus sedans and Ranger pickups, along with all 3.3 liter Chrysler minivans, are currently available in E-85 flexible-fuel models at no extra charge.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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