Ethanol - the short-term solution to Americans foreign oil addiction?

Ethanol is the most promising short-term solution to Americans’ foreign oil addiction, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said Thursday.

Bodman called on automakers to make more vehicles capable of running on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. For the 2006 model year, about 700,000 so-called "flex-fuel" vehicles were produced.

Over the next three years, the federal government plans to award $50 million worth of grants to universities, national laboratories and private companies researching hydrogen. The program, aimed at developing vehicles that run can more than 300 miles on a single fill-up of hydrogen, furthers the Bush administration’s goal of commercializing fuel cells by 2020.

If hydrogen is widely used by 2040, the United States would reduce its daily oil consumption by 11 million barrels a day.

But Americans shouldn’t wait until fuel cells are viable to start weaning themselves off gasoline, Bodman said. He mentioned clean diesel and hybrid technology as positive steps but spent much of his speech at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress talking up ethanol.

Thirty-three ethanol plants are under construction, Bodman said, and nine of the 97 existing facilities are expanding. When completed, the projects will increase nationwide output by 40 percent.

In addition to production capacity, the use of ethanol is being hindered by its price. Most ethanol is made from corn, and corn prices have risen because about 14 percent of the nation’s crop is used to make ethanol.

E85 costs about the same as regular gasoline per gallon and most drivers actually end up paying more to use E85 because it causes fuel economy to decline. On Thursday, the Sunoco station on Eight Mile near Lahser was selling E85 for $2.60 a gallon, 10 cents less than regular gas.

To drive prices lower, the Energy Department is encouraging ethanol producers to use materials such as wood chips, wild grasses and corn cobs instead of corn.

Until the fuel is appealing financially, experts say the government likely will need to provide incentives to encourage its use.

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