What a difference three bucks a gallon makes. In the past year, General Motors has rallied state and federal support to get more E85 (an 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline blend) pumps at U.S. gas stations, launched a corn-hued marketing blitz, and announced that it is increasing production of its flex-fuel vehicles by 25 percent. Mary Beth Stanek, GM’s director of environment and energy, talked to Grist about ethanol’s role in GM’s fuel portfolio, SUVs’ bad rap, and future eclecticism at the pump.
How did E85 become one of the focal points of GM’s fuel strategy?
I think it was sensing the market — I’m talking the ethanol market and the volatility in oil prices. We started to notice that ethanol production was increasing rather significantly and that there were reliable firms making a great deal of ethanol. And we had a substantial number of flex-fuel vehicles in the car park.
The Big Three have gotten a lot of flak for pushing SUVs and trucks and vehicles with low fuel economy. Some blame that strategy for the downturn in their market share. Is E85 a way to counteract that?
First of all, not all SUVs are the same, and fuel economy is getting better in all classes. If you’re really trying to offset fossil-fuel use, it’s better to do it in our most popular models. And our most popular models continue to be SUVs and pickups. This is not to say [E85 is] absent from the other makes. We have E85 or flex-fuel in our Impalas, and we’re going to be expanding to over 16 models.
I’ve noticed recently that SUV ads have started touting their gas mileage. How have things shifted as far as marketing fuel efficiency in automobiles?
There was a period a few years ago where you’d say it was a metric that was in the middle of the pack. Certainly price and performance and safety have always been very high. But fuel economy is right up there at the top for selection now.
What has been the response to E85 from government?
There are a lot of states like Michigan, Indiana, that are putting money up front [for ethanol infrastructure]. And once people get money up front, it makes them move a lot quicker. And then of course once [the pumps] are flowing, a lot of the state agency fleets begin to use those stations permanently.
Why do you think the states’ responses have been so positive?
First of all, if they have ethanol in their state or they’re planning on building facilities, there’s job creation. But I also think there is a need and a desire for fuel diversity. And I think in some states, it’s very advantageous from a price point standpoint too. When that price stays pretty competitive and doesn’t move, that helps the consumers in the state and helps the governors as well because consumers aren’t getting upset about the volatility of fuel pricing.
Do you feel as if there’s some confusion out there as far as what is ethanol versus other biofuels, and how hybrids fit in to the picture?
First of all, not everyone is on the same page with ethanol. And there are some persistent areas of debate. One is food or fuel. The other is the net energy balance. There’s a lot of relatively new research, but it’s been triangulated and it shows these are not issues. The truth is that the net energy balance is still positive, especially as it compares to gasoline. With regard to food or fuel, most of the corn that’s used in this is not for people anyway. It’s for animal feed.
I would call [ethanol] the flagship biofuel. It’s the fuel that’s going to do a number of things: First of all, introduce the fact that there is a homegrown fuel, that there is some choice. Once people get used to that idea, you can begin to introduce the other ones like biodiesel — but you have to tighten up the specs on some of these fuels, in particular biodiesel, to really get it going.
Where would you rank E85 on GM’s fuel-efficiency portfolio?
It’s one of the options. The importance of the improved internal combustion engine is going to continue — lighter materials, better fuel economy. The other large vein of work is alternative fuels. And that’s E85 and biodiesel — so we’re working on them both. And then we do have a very strong hybrid offering coming out. We have the Saturn now and we have the two-modes coming. All marching toward the hydrogen economy. We’re going to have 100 hydrogen vehicles in the hands of consumers for testing and validation by 2008.
Out of all of these various strategies, what do you envision as the future of the automotive industry?
It will be very different than it is today. You’ll see people getting their fuel, whether renewable or fossil fuels, from traditional retailers. In the case of hybrids, you may be getting your energy from the grid, or, in the case of hydrogen vehicles, from your home refueler. So it’s going to be a very diverse fueling network and diverse portfolio of product — and they’ll all be coexisting.