R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Prices of Various Energy Sources

As we continue to develop biomass as a renewable source of energy, it is important to keep the cost of energy in mind, because this has a very strong influence on the choices governments and individuals will make. I sometimes hear people ask “Why are we still using dirty coal?” You will see why in this post.

Last year I saw a presentation that projected very strong growth in wood pellet shipments from Canada and the U.S. into Europe. My first thought was “That doesn’t sound very efficient. Why don’t we just use those here in North America?”

It didn’t take very long for me to find out the answer to that. It is because wood pellets are much more expensive than natural gas in North America. On top of that it takes more effort to use wood for energy than it does natural gas. That combination means that wood has a tough time competing with natural gas in North America.

When I was looking into that issue, I compiled a list of the price for various energy types on an energy equivalent basis. The price is as current as possible unless noted. I have converted everything into $/million BTU (MMBTU), and the sources are listed below.

My preference is to use EIA data over NYMEX data because the former is an archived, fixed number. I have included energy for heating and for various transportation options. For comparison I also included the cost of electricity and the cost of the ethanol subsidy/MMBTU of ethanol produced.

Current Energy Prices per Million BTU

Powder River Basin Coal – $0.56
Northern Appalachia Coal – $2.08
Natural gas – $5.67
Ethanol subsidy – $5.92
Petroleum – $13.56
Propane – $13.92
#2 Heating Oil – $15.33
Jet fuel – $16.01
Diesel – $16.21
Gasoline – $18.16
Wood pellets – $18.57
Ethanol – $24.74
Electricity – $34.03

Observations

It isn’t difficult then to see why wood pellets have a difficult market in the U.S. For people with access to natural gas, they are going to prefer the lower price and convenience of natural gas over wood. For Europe, their natural gas supplies aren’t nearly as secure, so they have more incentive to favor wood as an option.

The cost of the ethanol subsidy is interesting. We pay more for the ethanol subsidy than natural gas costs. However, if you consider that we are paying a subsidy on a per gallon basis – and a large fraction of that gallon of ethanol is fossil fuel-derived, the subsidy for the renewable component is really high.

For instance, if we consider a generous energy return on ethanol of 1.5 BTUs out per BTU in, that means the renewable component per gallon is only 1/3rd of a gallon. (An energy return of 1.5 indicates that it took 1 BTU of fossil fuel to produce 1.5 BTU of ethanol; hence the renewable component in that case is 1/3rd). That means that the subsidy on simply the renewable component is actually three times as high – $17.76/MMBTU. Bear in mind that this is only the subsidy; the consumer then has to pay $24.74/MMBTU for the ethanol itself.

Sources for Data

Petroleum – $13.56 (EIA World Average Price for 1/08/2010)
Northern Appalachia Coal – $2.08 (EIA Average Weekly Spot for 1/08/10)
Powder River Basin Coal – $0.56 (EIA Average Weekly Spot for 1/08/10)
Propane – $13.92 (EIA Mont Belvieu, TX Spot Price for 1/12/2010)
Natural gas – $5.67 (NYMEX contract for February 2010)
#2 Heating Oil – $15.33 (EIA New York Harbor Price for 1/12/2010)
Gasoline – $18.16 (EIA New York Harbor Price for 1/12/2010)
Diesel – $16.21 (EIA #2 Low Sulfur New York Harbor for 1/08/2010)
Jet fuel – (EIA New York Harbor for 1/12/2010)
Ethanol – $24.74 (NYMEX Spot for February 2010)
Wood pellets – $18.57 (Typical Wood Pellet Price for 1/12/2010)
Electricity – $34.03 (EIA Average Retail Price to Consumers for 2009)

Conversion factors

Petroleum – 138,000 BTU/gal
Gasoline – 115,000 BTU/gal
Diesel – 131,000 BTU/gal
Ethanol – 76,000 BTU/gal
Heating oil 138,000 BTU/gal
Jet fuel – 135,000 BTU/gal
Propane – 91,500 BTU/gal
Northern Appalachia Coal – 13,000 BTU/lb
Powder River Basin Coal – 8,800 BTU/lb
Wood pellets – 7,000 BTU/lb
Electricity – 3,412 BTU/kWh

January 19, 2010 Posted by | coal, EIA, electricity, Energy Information Administration, ethanol prices, ethanol subsidies, gas prices, oil prices | 1 Comment

EPA Delays Ethanol Ruling

In a move that wasn’t really a surprise, today the EPA announced that they are not yet ready to approve ethanol blends above E10 for automobiles:

EPA Notifies Industry Group on Status of Ethanol Waiver Request

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced that it expects to make a final determination in mid-2010 regarding whether to increase the allowable ethanol content in fuel.

In a letter sent today to Growth Energy – a bio fuels industry association that had asked EPA to grant a waiver that would allow for the use of up to 15 percent of ethanol in gasoline – the agency said that while not all tests have been completed, the results of two tests indicate that engines in newer cars likely can handle an ethanol blend higher than the current 10-percent limit. The agency will decide whether to raise the blending limit when more testing data is available. EPA also announced that it has begun the process to craft the labeling requirements that will be necessary if the blending limit is raised.

In March 2009, Growth Energy requested a waiver to allow for the use of up to 15 percent ethanol in gasoline, an increase of five percent points. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA was required to respond to the waiver request by December 1, 2009. EPA has been evaluating the group’s request and has received a broad range of public comments as part of the administrative rulemaking process. EPA and the Department of Energy also undertook a number of studies to determine whether cars could handle higher ethanol blends. Testing has been proceeding as quickly as possible given the available testing facilities.

In a letter to Growth Energy, a pro-ethanol organization headed up by POET CEO Jeff Broin and General Wesley Clark, the EPA indicated that testing had only been completed on two vehicles, but testing on an additional 12 vehicles was expected to be completed by May 2010. On the basis of the two completed tests, the EPA said they would “be in a position to approve E15 for 2001 and newer vehicles in the mid-year timeframe.”

That begs the question of whether there is expected to be a potential problem in vehicles older than 2001 models. If so, and E15 is approved for 2001 and newer models, I can imagine a logistical nightmare and a class action lawsuit waiting to happen. Instead of having three grades of gasoline, there would likely need to be five or six grades depending on the age of your car. For gasoline blenders and for station owners, it will be a bit of a headache. For lawyers, a potential windfall as pre-2001 car owners have their engines ruined because they put the wrong fuel in, or someone else messed up in the supply chain.

Instead of going down this path, why don’t we do more to incentivize E85? We aren’t close to saturating the market for E85; the problem is just that the E85 price isn’t low enough relative to gasoline. There are supposedly several million E85 vehicles on the roads today, with automakers ramping up production even more in future years.

Consider for a moment the potential E85 market in the Midwest, where most of the corn is grown and most of the ethanol is produced. Per the EIA, the demand for gasoline in the Midwest in 2008 was 2.5 million barrels per day. Imagine for a moment that this demand was for E85. In that case, because of the lower energy content, demand would rise to around 3.3 million barrels per day. Of that, 85%, or 2.8 million barrels per day, would come from ethanol.

How much is 2.8 million barrels per day? It would be 43 billion gallons per year of ethanol, far greater than the 10 billion or so gallons of ethanol produced in the U.S. in 2010. In fact, even if you could convince only half the people in the Midwest to use E85, there would be absolutely no need to even think about increasing the amount of ethanol in the general gasoline pool. And that’s just in the Midwest!

So why isn’t this strategy being heavily pursued? Primarily I think it comes down to cost. If you can get 15% ethanol into the gasoline pool, any cost penalty is spread out over many consumers and it is further masked because the bulk of the fuel is gasoline. With E85, ethanol is carry the brunt of the costs and the penalty is far more obvious.

As I write this, per this site that promotes E85 fuel, right now the savings from burning E85 instead of regular gasoline is only 11.88% (a national average price of $2.53 for gasoline versus $2.23 for E85). The problem is that the mileage penalty is going to be over 20% in most cases (the energy content of E85 is almost 30% less than gasoline on a per gallon basis), and therefore people are not going to voluntarily buy it.

How to get around that? Well, if you could instead make everyone buy E15, you don’t really have to worry about that cost problem. Consumers will be forced to take the hit, but it will be spread out across all consumers. But if they could make the cost of ethanol more competitive such that the savings from E85 is consistently around 25-30% relative to gasoline, E85 demand would be great enough to consume all of the ethanol we will make for the foreseeable future.

December 2, 2009 Posted by | energy policy, EPA, ethanol mandate, ethanol prices, politics | 131 Comments

Show Me

I got a kick out of this story from the newest issue of Subsidy Watch:

New research from Missouri refutes allegations that ethanol mandates save money

A report from a Missouri-based research organization debunks the claim that Missourians are saving money through a state law requiring that retail gasoline contain a minimum of 10% ethanol. The report is in reaction to an assertion by the Missouri Corn Merchandising Association (MCMA), alleging that Missourians will save more than US$ 285 million through the E-10 mandate in 2008, and nearly US$ 2 billion over the following decade.

The MCMA arrived at these numbers by taking the price difference between pure-grade gasoline and E-10 blended fuel, and multiplying it by Missouri’s projected annual consumption.

However, the report by the Show Me Institute reveals two fundamental flaws with this calculation. One is that it fails to take into account the fact that E-10 blended fuel is cheaper because ethanol producers receive tax credits and other subsidies.

“Government officials cannot simply take tax dollars from the public, give those tax dollars to ethanol blenders, and then have ethanol supporters tell the public that ethanol is saving them money with cheaper fuel as though the subsidy never existed,” write the report’s authors, Justin P. Hauke and David Stokes.

The MCMA also does not take into account that E-10 blended fuel is about 2.5% less efficient than pure-grade gasoline, meaning that Missourians will be filling their tanks more often.

When both of these factors are taken into account, the ethanol blending mandates are shown to be costing Missourians about US$ 118 million per year.

“Although Missourians may pay nominally less for gasoline at the pump after the E-10 mandate, these savings will not reflect the actual cost Missourians would pay in complying with new ethanol fuel standards,” write the authors. “Ethanol subsidies are not free money — they are simply a wealth transfer from one taxpayer to another.”

The full report, “The Economic Impact of the Missouri E-10 Ethanol Mandate”, is available on-line by clicking here.

I hear these kinds of stories all the time. The corn/ethanol lobby wants credit for gasoline not keeping up with escalating oil prices (claiming it is ethanol that is keeping gasoline prices from keeping pace, but ignoring of course the fact that gasoline demand is softening due to the high price). They do not, however, want anything to do with claims that they have had an impact on food prices. So they won’t be happy about this:

Biofuels behind food price hikes: leaked World Bank report

LONDON (AFP) – Biofuels have caused world food prices to increase by 75 percent, according to the findings of an unpublished World Bank report published in The Guardian newspaper on Friday.

The daily said the report was finished in April but was not published to avoid embarrassing the US government, which has claimed plant-derived fuels have pushed up prices by only three percent.

The report’s author, a senior World Bank economist, assessed that contrary to claims by US President George W. Bush, increased demand from India and China has not been the cause of rising food prices.

“The report estimates that higher energy and fertiliser prices accounted for an increase of only 15 percent, while biofuels have been responsible for a 75 percent jump over that period.”

Expect the RFA to mobilize for a response in 3, 2, 1….

And Happy 4th to those of you who celebrate it. I plan to get away from the computer today.

July 4, 2008 Posted by | ethanol prices, ethanol subsidies, food prices | 37 Comments

PEIX Drops Below $2

Wow! I just checked a few stocks that I tend to watch, and Pacific Ethanol (PEIX) has now fallen to $1.85 a share. It is now down more than 95% off its high, and down more than 90% from the first time I warned that the company was overvalued. Once boasting a market cap of almost $2 billion, that has now fallen to $82 million.

Now, where are all of those posters who kept telling me what a deal this was after it fell to $10? Like our friend James, who cited PEIX investor Bill Gates’ “ability to see into the future” as a reason to invest in PEIX, and told me I was “very, very stupid” if I thought the price would continue to fall. Of course Gates has recently been dumping his shares as quickly as he can (at a huge loss). Personally, as I have said before, if I want some insights into the future of computing, I would listen to Gates. On the topic of Pacific Ethanol, or for that matter any topic far-removed from his area of expertise, not so much.

June 24, 2008 Posted by | Bill Gates, ethanol, ethanol prices, investing, Pacific Ethanol, PEIX | 21 Comments

Updated Corn Ethanol Economics

Executive Summary: The current cost to produce a gallon of ethanol is approximately $3/gal. The current price of ethanol is $2.86/gal, which explains why ethanol producers are shutting down. If corn and natural gas prices remain high, I think ethanol has to rise to something like $3.40-$3.60/gal to make it worthwhile to ethanol producers. So, if I was a commmodities investor, I would probably go long ethanol right now. The only risk factors I can see – given that there is a mandated (and rising) demand for ethanol – is if corn or natural gas prices collapse.

—————————

This is an update to a post I originally made back in February 2008: Corn Ethanol Economics. While this is approximate, I think I captured most of the major economic considerations. In fact, one of the comments I received following the first essay was: “I work in an ethanol plant. Those numbers are pretty accurate, but the price we get for ethanol has been going up lately. Our margins have been poor lately, but are improving. But you did capture the important economic factors that have hurt us lately.”

Since then, natural gas, corn, and ethanol prices have all risen. So what do the economics look like today? The following is my previous analysis, with updated numbers.

I found multiple references for all of the numbers I am going to use, but I will only reference a single source. According to Ethanol Reshapes the Corn Market, one 56-pound bushel of corn will yield up to 2.7 gallons of ethanol and 17.4 pounds of distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS).

The price of corn for July delivery as of this writing is $7.24/bushel, so each gallon of ethanol contains $7.24/2.7, or $2.68 of corn per gallon of ethanol. However, the DDGS can be sold, so a credit is applied for that. The current price of DDGS as of this writing is $175/ton, which is $0.0875/lb. Given that a bushel of corn yields 17.4 pounds of DDGS, there is then a $1.52 credit, which spread over 2.7 gallons is equal to $0.56 gallon. This reduces our cost per gallon to $2.68 minus $0.56, or $2.12 for just the corn input. (Note that there is sometimes a credit for carbon dioxide sales, but it is very small relative to the other costs and credits).

I still have to consider utilities (natural gas is a major cost), labor, enzyme and yeast costs, and depreciation. I have a spreadsheet from an actual ethanol plant, but there isn’t much in the public domain that I could find on this. The closest thing to a source on these is the spreadsheet in the presentation Fossil Fuels and Ethanol Plant Economics (for a standard dry mill process). If you look at Page 16 of the presentation, you can see that all of the miscellaneous costs together total approximately as much as the corn inputs. If you take the spreadsheet on Page 24 and change the natural gas price to the current price of $13.20/MMBTU, you get an overall energy cost of $0.51/gal of ethanol. (You can play around with the original spreadsheet that is in the PDF here). The sum of enzymes, yeast, and other chemicals comes out to be $0.14/gal, and labor, maintenance, and various miscellaneous expenses add another $0.23/gal.

On depreciation, I have several sources for capital costs that are pretty consistent. In the EIA’s Energy Outlook 2006, capital costs per daily barrel of corn ethanol ranged from $20,000 to $30,000, depending on the size of the plant. This breaks down to between $1.30 and $1.95 per gallon of installed capacity. This is also consistent with A Guide for Evaluating the Requirements of Ethanol Plants, which states “Current capital cost per annual gallon of installed capacity for an ethanol plant ranges from $1.25 to $2.00.” So let’s be conservative and say that we want to build a big plant, so the capital costs are on the low end at $1.30/gallon. Depreciate that over 15 years and this portion amounts to about $0.08 per gallon (but is captured above already).

However, for biomass to liquids facilities – which would include the biomass gasification to ethanol that some are calling cellulosic ethanol – the capital costs in the EIA’s Energy Outlook 2006 are listed at around 5 times that of a conventional corn ethanol plant. Thus, the capital depreciation portion is going to be around $0.40 per gallon of ethanol. (On the other hand, the feed costs should be much lower).

Summary

Times are tough for ethanol producers. This is what the economics roughly look like at $7.24 per bushel of corn and $13.20/MMBTU of natural gas. To produce 1 gallon of ethanol requires:

  • $2.68 of corn
  • $0.51 of energy
  • $0.14 of enzymes, yeast, etc.
  • $0.23 of labor, maintenance, and various miscellaneous expenses

There is a DDGS credit per gallon of ethanol of $0.56. Thus, the total cost to produce a gallon of ethanol today is $2.68 + $0.51 + $0.14 + $0.23 – $0.56, or exactly $3/gallon of ethanol. For reference, the July contract for ethanol in the Midwest closed yesterday at $2.86. And $3/gallon is merely cost of production. It doesn’t take into account any return on investment.

Also note that due to the lower energy content, this production cost is equivalent to a $4.48 per gallon production cost for gasoline ($3/0.67) – and that this production cost is a moving target: As long as the ethanol mandates are driving up the price of corn and increasing the demand for and cost of natural gas, corn ethanol producers must chase their tails in a vicious circle.

Producers are going to be hard-pressed to ever match the 2006 windfall that was given to them when the MTBE phaseout drove ethanol prices sky-high. But my conclusion is – since ethanol is mandated – some marginal producers will shut down and prices will rise. If everything else remained constant, I think ethanol would have to rise to something like $3.40-$3.60/gal to make it worthwhile to ethanol producers. So, if I was a commmodities investor, I would probably go long ethanol right now.

June 24, 2008 Posted by | corn prices, economics, ethanol, ethanol prices, investing, natural gas | 9 Comments

Corn Ethanol Economics

Someone e-mailed a few days ago and asked some questions about the present economics of corn ethanol. I did a few calculations, which I think are interesting enough to share. (Note that because this is a snapshot, the numbers will change over time. But you should be able to use the methodology here to roughly calculate the economics at any point in time.)

I found multiple references for all of the numbers I am going to use, but I will only reference a single source. According to Ethanol Reshapes the Corn Market, one 56-pound bushel of corn will yield up to 2.7 gallons of ethanol and 17.4 pounds of distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS).

The current spot price of corn as of this writing is about $5/bushel, so each gallon of ethanol contains $5/2.7, or $1.85 of corn per gallon of ethanol. However, the DDGS can be sold, so a credit is applied for that. The current price of DDGS as of this writing is $170/ton, which is $0.085/lb. Given that a bushel of corn yields 17.4 pounds of DDGS, there is then a $1.48 credit, which spread over 2.7 gallons is equal to $0.55 gallon. This reduces our cost per gallon to $1.85 minus $0.55, or $1.30 for just the corn input. (Note that there is sometimes a credit for carbon dioxide sales, but it is very small relative to the other costs and credits).

I still have to consider utilities (natural gas is a major cost), labor, enzyme and yeast costs, and depreciation. I have a spreadsheet from an actual ethanol plant, but there isn’t much in the public domain that I could find on this. The closest thing to a source on these is the spreadsheet in the presentation Fossil Fuels and Ethanol Plant Economics (for a standard dry mill process). If you look at Page 16 of the presentation, you can see that all of the miscellaneous costs together total approximately as much as the corn inputs. If you take the spreadsheet on Page 24 and change the natural gas price to the current price of $8/MMBTU, you get an overall energy cost of $0.33/gal of ethanol. The sum of enzymes, yeast, and other chemicals comes out to be $0.14/gal, and labor, maintenance, and various miscellaneous expenses add another $0.23/gal.

On depreciation, I have several sources for capital costs that are pretty consistent. In the EIA’s Energy Outlook 2006, capital costs per daily barrel of corn ethanol ranged from $20,000 to $30,000, depending on the size of the plant. This breaks down to between $1.30 and $1.95 per gallon of installed capacity. This is also consistent with A Guide for Evaluating the Requirements of Ethanol Plants, which states “Current capital cost per annual gallon of installed capacity for an ethanol plant ranges from $1.25 to $2.00.” So let’s be conservative and say that we want to build a big plant, so the capital costs are on the low end at $1.30/gallon. Depreciate that over 15 years and this portion amounts to about $0.08 per gallon (but is captured above already).

However, for biomass to liquids facilities – which would include the biomass gasification to ethanol that some are calling cellulosic ethanol – the capital costs in the EIA’s Energy Outlook 2006 are listed at around 5 times that of a conventional corn ethanol plant. Thus, the capital depreciation portion is going to be around $0.40 per gallon of ethanol. (On the other hand, the feed costs should be much lower).

Summary

Times are tough for ethanol producers. This is what the economics roughly look like at $5 per bushel of corn and $8/MMBTU of natural gas. To produce 1 gallon of ethanol requires:

  • $1.85 of corn
  • $0.33 of energy
  • $0.14 of enzymes, yeast, etc.
  • $0.23 of labor, maintenance, and various miscellaneous expenses

There is a DDGS credit per gallon of ethanol of $0.55. Thus, the total cost to produce a gallon of ethanol today is $1.85 + $0.33 + $0.14 + $0.23 – $0.55, or exactly $2/gallon of ethanol. For reference, the February contract for ethanol in the Midwest as of this writing is $2.15. And $2/gallon is merely cost of production. It doesn’t take into account any return on investment.

Also note that due to the lower energy content, this production cost is equivalent to a $3 per gallon production cost for gasoline – and that this production cost is a moving target: As long as the ethanol mandates are driving up the price of corn and increasing the demand for and cost of natural gas, corn ethanol producers must chase their tails in a vicious cycle. Producers are going to be hard-pressed to ever match the 2006 windfall that was given to them when the MTBE phaseout drove ethanol prices sky-high.

Anyway, this was a useful exercise for me to understand the magnitude of the various inputs (and the DDGS offset) in corn ethanol production. I hope you found it of some value. If you see errors or have suggestions, please let me know.

February 2, 2008 Posted by | corn prices, economics, ethanol, ethanol prices, natural gas | 291 Comments

E85 Road Test

A couple of months back, I posted Gary Dikkers’ analysis comparing the fuel efficiency of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Gary’s conclusion was:

Both states have almost identical topography, climate, demographics, and about the same mix of urban/rural driving. (In fact, Wisconsin has a slightly higher ratio of urban to rural miles driven.) The two states are about as close to being twins as any two states could be. (Not counting the Vikings/Packers difference of course.) Yet fuel economy in Minnesota is worse, and their drivers buy and burn more fuel than their neighbors.

The only obvious difference that jumps out is that Minnesota has mandated its drivers burn a blend of ethanol and gasoline — a fuel with a known lower energy density than gasoline.

Along that same theme, a reporter in Minnesota has done a road test comparing the operating costs of E85 in Minnesota to regular gasoline in Wisconsin.

Ethanol Part II – Our E85 road test

Some excerpts:

In the effort to find clean alternative sources of energy, consumers have been led to believe they can “go green” by fueling up on corn. “Join the movement,” GM urges. “Go to livegreengoyellow.com.

The U.S. Senate apparently agrees. It voted to increase U.S. ethanol production to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022. The House did not pass the same increase, but the mandate could still make its way into the energy bill Congress gives to the President.

Maybe there’s good reason drivers aren’t demanding ethanol. Performance is an issue. Even with a 10-percent blend of ethanol, a car’s mileage will drop two or three percent. A Congressional Research Service backgrounder on ethanol says 10 percent ethanol blend drops your mileage 2-3 percent. (Link: Report, reference on page CRS-6)

KARE 11 took a road test to find out if ethanol really is a practical alternative to gas. We drove a flex-fuel Dodge Durango, one of about six million vehicles on the road today specially designed to run on either E85 or gasoline, and started with a full tank of pure E85. We drove until the tank was empty.

Using E85, we drove a total of 351.4 miles. The Durango’s tank held 28 gallons. That means our fuel efficiency with E85 was 12.55 miles per gallon.

After the tank had been drained, we re-filled at a gas station in Wisconsin, where the regular unleaded contained no ethanol. We drove back to Minnesota, and with no ethanol in the tank, the car felt the same on the road. But the difference in miles per gallon was huge. With gas containing no ethanol, we averaged about 20.41 miles per gallon. In other words, with E85 in the car, our mileage was 39 percent worse.

The result actually was worse than we expected. Consumer Reports magazine conducted a similar road test and found mileage was 27 percent worse with E85.

(Article The Ethanol Myth)

Either way, the money you save at the pump does not offset the difference in mileage. At the time of our road test, E85 cost 19 percent less than gas. So with E85, you have to spend more money to drive the same distance.

But the conversion of corn into ethanol has been pushed along by billions of dollars in government subsidies. The technology for converting grass is lagging about five years behind. (Link: Minnesota House of Representatives research on ethanol)

I think this ethanol booster has the right idea, though:

Even Don Brown, a former truck driver who calls himself the “E85 Man” and spends his retirement promoting ethanol, said he’d rather use no fuel at all.

“No,” he said, “this is only the first step. We gotta take the first step.”

What is a better way to reduce our oil consumption? “Electrics!” Brown said, snapping his fingers. “I would buy an electric car in a minute.”

Then he paused and said, “If I could.”

I will be the first to acknowledge that price isn’t everything. But I think this is the reason that consumers aren’t demanding E85, which therefore makes it stupid to try to force gas station owners to put in the pumps.

November 9, 2007 Posted by | E85, ethanol, ethanol prices, fuel efficiency | 8 Comments

E85 Pricing Reports

Updated: 9/29/07

When I read the following quote, I immediately thought of the recent Business Week article claiming that availability – which they claimed is being hampered by oil companies – is the primary reason E-85 is not taking hold.

I don’t buy E-85 for my flex fuel Ranger even though it is readily available around here with all the ethanol plants. It’s because the price is never less than 80% of the price of E-10. I get 80% of the mileage with E-85 that I get with E-10.

The above quote comes from a devoted ethanol advocate and corn farmer, who frequently posts at The Oil Drum. If he isn’t willing to spend extra money on E-85, then can you really expect the general public to do so? Price is a much clearer explanation than Business Week’s conspiracy theories for why E-85 is not more popular. Price matters.

In addition to gasoline and diesel, AAA has started tracking E85 pricing. Their report is published each day at:

Daily Fuel Gauge Report

Not only do they publish the price of E85, but they also publish a BTU-adjusted price, which is actually a gasoline equivalent price. This price can be used to compare actual per mile fuel costs. AAA explains:

The BTU-adjusted price of E-85 is the nationwide average price of E-85 adjusted to reflect the lower energy content as expressed in British Thermal Units – and hence miles per gallon – available in a gallon of E-85 as compared to the same volume of conventional gasoline. The BTU-adjusted price calculated by OPIS and AAA is not an actual retail average price paid by consumers. It is calculated and displayed as part of AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report because according to the Energy Information Administration E-85 delivers approximately 25 percent fewer BTUs by volume than conventional gasoline. Because “flexible fuel” vehicles can operate on conventional fuel and E-85, the BTU-adjusted price of E-85 is essential to understanding the cost implications of each fuel choice for consumers.

It is of interest to note these BTU-adjusted E85 prices. Despite the fact that ethanol prices (and margins) have collapsed, and gasoline prices remain high, the adjusted E85 price remains higher than that of gasoline. Yesterday’s prices show regular at $2.81, E85 at $2.33, and the BTU-adjusted price of E85 at $3.07. I think ethanol prices will begin to recover as the mandated ethanol levels increase and as the industry goes through a shakeout, so the E85 price gap is not likely to significantly improve.

Is it really a mystery why gas station owners aren’t rushing out to install more E85 pumps? If the demand is there, the pumps will come.

September 29, 2007 Posted by | E85, ethanol prices | Comments Off on E85 Pricing Reports

E85 Pricing Reports

Updated: 9/29/07

When I read the following quote, I immediately thought of the recent Business Week article claiming that availability – which they claimed is being hampered by oil companies – is the primary reason E-85 is not taking hold.

I don’t buy E-85 for my flex fuel Ranger even though it is readily available around here with all the ethanol plants. It’s because the price is never less than 80% of the price of E-10. I get 80% of the mileage with E-85 that I get with E-10.

The above quote comes from a devoted ethanol advocate and corn farmer, who frequently posts at The Oil Drum. If he isn’t willing to spend extra money on E-85, then can you really expect the general public to do so? Price is a much clearer explanation than Business Week’s conspiracy theories for why E-85 is not more popular. Price matters.

In addition to gasoline and diesel, AAA has started tracking E85 pricing. Their report is published each day at:

Daily Fuel Gauge Report

Not only do they publish the price of E85, but they also publish a BTU-adjusted price, which is actually a gasoline equivalent price. This price can be used to compare actual per mile fuel costs. AAA explains:

The BTU-adjusted price of E-85 is the nationwide average price of E-85 adjusted to reflect the lower energy content as expressed in British Thermal Units – and hence miles per gallon – available in a gallon of E-85 as compared to the same volume of conventional gasoline. The BTU-adjusted price calculated by OPIS and AAA is not an actual retail average price paid by consumers. It is calculated and displayed as part of AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report because according to the Energy Information Administration E-85 delivers approximately 25 percent fewer BTUs by volume than conventional gasoline. Because “flexible fuel” vehicles can operate on conventional fuel and E-85, the BTU-adjusted price of E-85 is essential to understanding the cost implications of each fuel choice for consumers.

It is of interest to note these BTU-adjusted E85 prices. Despite the fact that ethanol prices (and margins) have collapsed, and gasoline prices remain high, the adjusted E85 price remains higher than that of gasoline. Yesterday’s prices show regular at $2.81, E85 at $2.33, and the BTU-adjusted price of E85 at $3.07. I think ethanol prices will begin to recover as the mandated ethanol levels increase and as the industry goes through a shakeout, so the E85 price gap is not likely to significantly improve.

Is it really a mystery why gas station owners aren’t rushing out to install more E85 pumps? If the demand is there, the pumps will come.

September 29, 2007 Posted by | E85, ethanol prices | 6 Comments

Bill Gates’ Ethanol Losses

About the same time I was warning last year of an ethanol bubble, Bill Gates was sinking money into Pacific Ethanol (PEIX). In the same essay in which I warned of the bubble, I took a look at Pacific Ethanol, and concluded that the underlying fundamentals of the stock – even with the ethanol mandate – were not good.

Since that time, Pacific Ethanol has fallen from $22.54 down to today’s value of $9.97. Given that Gates’ purchase price was $16.00 a share – and the stock ran up to ultimately around $40 before collapsing – it looked like a shrewd move for a while. And I lost count of how many people – when arguing with me about ethanol – pointed out that Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla were investing in it, and that was good enough for them. After all, who did I think I was to contradict a couple of billionaires on their vision of the future? (Of course, one billionaire – Mark Cuban – did listen).

But the fundamentals were not there. I believe that Gates finds himself in this position – and I don’t believe he has seen the last of his (long-term) losses in this stock – because he had to rely on others to give him direction in his case. He was outside his area of expertise. And while people seem to automatically assume that Bill Gates’ genius in the computer industry somehow translates across other industries, this is not the case. I have said the same about Vinod Khosla – expertise in one area does not transfer to a completely different industry, so you better take his ethanol claims with a very large dose of salt. I believe that he will ultimately lose out in a very big way with his ethanol investments. He may sell into some hype and make a bit of money now, but if he stays in for the long haul he will not fare very well.

Continuing on this theme, today several ethanol stocks, including Pacific Ethanol, were downgraded by a major brokerage firm:

Ahead of the Bell: Ethanol Downgraded

NEW YORK (Associated Press) – A Friedman Billings Ramsey analyst downgraded three ethanol producers Thursday, slashing his price targets and predicting the industry’s “growing pains” will continue due to small profit margins and oversupply.

Ethanol production margins have dropped to 15 cents per gallon from 75 cents in mid-May, said Eitan Bernstein, as the price of ethanol has dropped. He said prices will stay low through 2008, and reduced his ethanol price estimates for 2007 to 2010.

Bernstein cut his rating on Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. to “Underperform” from “Outperform,” reducing his price target to $9 per share from $24. The stock closed at $11.68 Wednesday. He downgraded VeraSun Energy Corp. stock to “Market Perform” from “Outperform,” halving his price target to $12 from $24. The stock finished at $12.02 on Wednesday, and was unchanged in premarket trading. The analyst now rates shares of Pacific Ethanol Inc. “Underperform,” down from “Market Perform.” He cut his price target to $8 from $15. Shares ended Wednesday trading at $11.17.

Bernstein’s downgrades come a day after Aventine President and Chief Executive Ronald Miller addressed investors at a Bank of America conference. Miller said the industry is in a very difficult time due to declining margins, and expects conditions to stay hard until 2009.

Shouldn’t that downgrade have come before the stock price crashed? Of course if you have read this blog for long, you know that I have been warning about this for a long time. Here was a warning I gave 6 months ago:

When a commodity has such incredibly low barriers to entry, it is only a matter of time before capacity is overbuilt and the price crashes. That’s why I expect ethanol producers to continue lobbying congress to increase the amount of mandated ethanol usage and to accelerate the timeline. Otherwise, a lot of ethanol producers will struggle to stay in business in the next few years as their increased demand for corn continues to increase the price, while all the new ethanol capacity is flooding the market. Profit margins will evaporate (although corn farmers should earn a windfall). What we may see is a bail out reminiscent of the Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980’s.

Looks like Wall Street is finally coming around, although a bit too late for many investors. It may not matter much in the end to a billionaire, but it will to the people who tried to emulate them by following their investment strategy.

September 21, 2007 Posted by | Bill Gates, ethanol, ethanol prices, investing, Vinod Khosla | Comments Off on Bill Gates’ Ethanol Losses