The Pope Runs on Biofuels. Why Can't You?


Pope Francis has a "new" ride that can run on biofuels. Source: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo.

Sorry, Ford -- the Pope is more of a Renault guy.

The Vatican splashed down in the news feeds of green enthusiasts everywhere last week when it announced that Pope Francis will trade in his Ford Focus for a 1984 Renault 4. The vehicle was a gift from an Italian priest, Father Renzo Zocca, and comes with 190,000 miles, snow chains for cold winters, a unique story, and the ability to run on biofuels. In fact, Zocca maintains that most of the car's miles were driven on renewable fuels.

That should play perfectly with the Pope's views toward living humbly and sustainably. Whether the Renault ever gets fueled with another drop of biofuel or biofuel-laced gasoline is unknown, but perhaps we can all learn something from the Vatican's Earth-friendly approach to driving. How feasible would it be for your family car to run on higher blends of biofuels, such as E85 -- a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline?

What vehicle would you drive?
First things first: You'll need to buy a flex-fuel vehicle, or FFV, that can run on everything from pure gasoline to ethanol blends all the way up to E85. Who's selling these ethanol-guzzling vehicles? Most major automakers and brands -- including Ford, General Motors , Cadillac, Audi, and even Mercedes-Benz -- jumped onboard the FFV train years ago.

Driving on E85 isn't your only option, but out of the 11 million alternative-fuel vehicles on American roads in 2011, an estimated 10 million were FFVs, according to the Energy Information Administration. Current estimates from the Renewable Fuels Association peg the number closer to 15 million ethanol-ready vehicles. Most belong to Ford and GM, which each offer more than a dozen models, ranging from versions of the Ford Ranger to the Chevy Malibu.

Still, to put those numbers in perspective, there were 240 million cars in the United States in 2010. So why, given our success producing ethanol, aren't FFVs more popular?

Is E85 cost effective?
The biggest reason is costs. If you buy a flex vehicle for your family car and choose to fuel it strictly with E85, you'll have a lot of things to worry about. First, good luck finding one of the 2,338 gas stations that sell higher ethanol blends. It will be a little easier in ethanol-producing states in the Midwest, but it just isn't a realistic option for most drivers. Second, ethanol contains 27% less energy than gasoline sold today, which means you'll have to fuel up more often. By contrast, Tesla Motors is building a network of charging stations that will cover 98% of the country's population by 2015. Consumers would also be able to charge up an all-electric vehicle at home. Is it possible that range anxiety will only apply to drivers using E85 by mid-decade?

And since you really pay for energy content at the pump, getting 27% less of it also means E85 prices would need to be considerably less than those of gasoline just to reach breakeven. Consider how E85 affects the fuel economy of the following 2014 model year FFVs:


City MPG (Gas/E85)

Highway MPG (Gas/E85)

Annual Cost Difference of Driving on E85

Ford Focus




Chevy Equinox




Mercedes-Benz E350




Dodge Charger





Automakers aren't exactly making the vehicles a priority, either. Although Ford and GM remain committed, producing flexible autos won't help reach the latest Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards. Under previous revisions, automakers were granted a reprieve if they produced FFVs despite their lower fuel economy. The fleet target at the time was a mere 27.5 mpg. Ford and GM must now sport fleets that achieve 54.5 mpg by 2025, and while they can always claim the gasoline fuel economy of their FFVs, both companies are focusing their efforts on hybrid and electric technology.

At the end of the day, Tesla sets a high bar. E85 does not.

Can anyone flex some E85 muscles?
If you live in the Midwest, there's a chance that a flex vehicle makes sense for your family. Although it may be a short-term trend because of volatility in the ethanol credit market, E85 has reached cost-parity with regular gasoline (E10, of course) in recent months -- and even beaten it.

Source: Energy Information Administration.

That means lucky drivers in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio could save money by filling up with E85 blends. They'll still have to contend with shorter range, but it is a feasible option for a select few.

Foolish bottom line
There is hope that cellulosic ethanol refineries that are coming online in the next year will eventually be able to produce fuel at a reduced cost to current corn-based technologies, add to the country's surplus, and make E85 forever cheaper than gasoline. Critics are right to question those claims, especially given years of setbacks for next-generation fuels. Until that dream becomes a reality, the higher costs of driving on E85 in FFVs makes them a long shot for most American families. Better hope Father Zocca gifts your household a 1984 Renault 4, too.

Automakers spurn E85 for Chinese market
E85 has a long way to go before it creates great investing opportunities for automakers, which is exactly why they're turning to China. With improving standards of living, there are few things that these consumers are likely to purchase with more enthusiasm than cars and trucks. In this brand-new free report, our analysts get out in front of this trend by identifying two automakers that are poised to surge along with China's middle class. If you want to be among the smart investors who get rich from this growing trend, then you'd be well advised to instantly download our free report on the topic by clicking here now.

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Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio or his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter, @BlacknGoldFool, to keep up with his writing on energy, bioprocessing, and biotechnology.The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors and owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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