E85: Fuel of the future?

Dallas Hansen

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In Chicago last month I bought a used car, and, because the tank was nearly empty, filled it with gasoline. Next to the regular, mid-grade, and premium pump nozzles was another option, labelled “E85.” Although it had been a while since I had pumped gas into a motor vehicle, the availability of E85 — 85 per cent ethanol fuel blended with 15 per cent gasoline — left me unsurprised. In recent years I had, in my voracious daily readings, read many times about flex-fuel vehicles and 85 per cent ethanol gas. This is, I thought, 2006; cars are running on ethanol now. Flex-fuel sensors, which allow a vehicle to use E85, straight unleaded gasoline, or any combination of the two, are standard equipment on many new cars.

Through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, E85 was offered at every gas station at which I filled. Back in Winnipeg, however, I rolled up to a pump and wondered: Where’s the E85?

If you’re driving a provincial or federal government fleet vehicle, the E85 is at Notre Dame and Dublin, where a filling station was opened just this March. If, however, you’re driving your own private vehicle, you’ll have to distill your own, as some Midwestern motorists are doing. E85 is not commercially available in Manitoba.

Why would a supply line that’s consistent throughout the Midwestern U.S. suddenly halt at the border?

Most Manitobans are familiar with E10 gasohol, a 10 per cent ethanol/gasoline blend manufactured and marketed at Mohawk gas stations. Mohawk, which has since been acquired by Husky Energy Inc., began producing ethanol at its Minnedosa plant in 1981. While current capacity is 10 million litres annually, look for a 13-fold increase in production in mid-2007 when the new Minnedosa plant now under construction comes online. But don’t look for E85. According to Husky vice-president Vince Chin, the company has no plans to commercially market E85 in 2007. The production increase is rather to satisfy the provincial government’s mandate that gasoline sold in the province contain 10 per cent ethanol.

Chin says the commercial availability of E85 is “contingent upon a number of things. It’s like a chicken-and-egg effect.” You need, he says, the demand before there’s the availability, and the availability before there’s the demand. But many cars sold in Manitoba since 2001 are already flex-fuel capable, even if their owners don’t yet know it, and cheap, after-market kits are now available to convert many late-model vehicles to E85 readiness.

Jared Carlberg, a University of Manitoba agribusiness professor, doesn’t know where the E85 is either. In fact, he was surprised when I revealed to him the extent of E85’s availability in the Midwestern states.

“The buck kind of stops at the Canadian border,” he said. “It’s not really clear why.”

“At 75 bucks a barrel it makes a lot more sense to start investigating these non-traditional fuels.”

Other countries are doing it. E85 is widely available in Sweden, and in Brazil “total flex” vehicles can use 100 per cent ethanol, readily available at the pump, or any proportion of ethanol mixed with gasoline.

Finally, I spoke to Shaun Loney, director of energy policy for the Manitoba government.

“You’ll have a difficult time,” he said, “finding E85 anywhere in Canada, for the simple reason that the federal government hasn’t stepped up to the plate yet.” Whereas the U.S. federal government offers generous incentives for the ethanol industry, Canada’s incentives fail to match even those given to the oil and gas industry.

Rest assured, however, that E85 is coming. According to Loney, ethanol distillation, which in Manitoba currently comes from wheat (and in the U.S. comes primarily from corn), is moving to straw cellulose, which produces proportionately more ethanol. And as a by-product of producing ethanol from wheat, you get distiller’s grain, a high-protein livestock feed that comprises up to 35 per cent of revenues from ethanol production.

“Not only is this a homegrown solution to energy security,” said Loney, “it’s an important part of our overall economic development strategy.”

Which makes good sense for Manitoba, as the agricultural industry becomes, in one sense, a fuel industry. Archer Daniels Midland, the “supermarket to the world,” is fast becoming known as “the Exxon of corn” now that it is the largest producer of ethanol in the U.S. In the last year, ADM’s share price has more than doubled. As Manitoba wheat makes a big comeback, the answer to “Where’s the E85?” could soon be “Everywhere.”

Des Moines can’t touch Winnipeg

DALLAS HANSEN

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IS Des Moines Winnipeg’s twin? Recently, (Winnipeg through our eyes, May 1) the Free Press proffered that Iowa’s state capital is our “Mirror image.” Although I have visited Des Moines, it’s easier to see the differences via Google Earth. Just zoom in on any residential neighbourhood just off the central business district; then do the same with Winnipeg.

Whereas the sparsely laid houses in inner-city Des Moines occupy large lots, houses in Winnipeg are built right next to each other, and three-storey apartment blocks appear throughout our city grid. Winnipeg is much denser.

How much denser? In Des Moines proper (2000 census population 198,682) the overall density is 835 persons per square kilometre. In Winnipeg proper — i.e. pre-Unicity Winnipeg, excluding suburbs — the overall population is about the same (around 190,000, according to the 2001 census) but the density is 3,092 persons per square kilometre. In several urban neighbourhoods — Central Park, Roslyn, Broadway-Assiniboine — density exceeds 10,000 persons per square kilometre, and densities above 4,000 persons per square kilometre exist as far out as Weston. Even the semi-rural Charleswood neighbourhood of Roblin Park has a population density of 1,491 persons per square kilometre — far above the average of Des Moines proper, never mind their sprawling seven-county census metropolitan area (2000 census population 550,659).

Unlike Des Moines, Winnipeg is truly a city, with a vast, dense urban grid. It’s not just downtown and suburbia; there’s a city in between, and it’s big.

During the streetcar era, most of urban Winnipeg’s homes lay within quick walking distance of a mixed commercial-residential strip offering such essentials as a corner grocery store, a barber shop, a bakery, a caf, a hardware store, etc. Everything else was downtown, just a speedy streetcar ride away.

But a half century of de-urbanization has destroyed storefront continuity along such streets as Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Selkirk, and Sargent. Parking lots, empty lots, strip malls, and gas stations lie interspersed between old brick mixed-use buildings that were somehow spared, lending our major urban streets a look resembling a smile with missing teeth. Inner-city shoppers, today mostly motorists, now tend to look outward, often toward the St. James Industrial Park’s big-box stores, for their needs.

But imagine our city rebuilt and restored, with a giant, continuous walkable storefront environment reaching far out from the downtown. It’s a Winnipeg better compared to Chicago, not Des Moines, and such an urban continuity would make for a potent attraction for both residents and visitors.

Restoring storefront continuity along inner city streets was not among the 10 suggestions offered by the Free Press in its series on downtown, but it should have been.

The city also needs a subway system and not a bus-rapid transit network that eliminates on-street parking along commercial inner-city streets and imperils storefront business while making it harder for pedestrians to cross the streets. (Parked cars on both sides of a four-lane street mean you need only cross two lanes of traffic.) Simultaneously, the Free Press articles encouraged the city to spend whatever it takes to build 10,000 new housing units downtown, but having eight subway stations servicing our large downtown, as per a plan first proposed in 1959, would be a greater incentive to build than any number of subsidies or tax tweaks.

Unlike any other transit idea proposed for Winnipeg, the 1959 plan would offer heated indoor platforms and would bring pedestrians to the greatest number of major destinations — the Health Sciences Centre, Red River College, St. Boniface General Hospital — and urban street corners where people already walk and where rapid transit service is most needed: Portage and Hargrave, River and Osborne, Selkirk and Salter, etc.

According to a 2000 report by the World Bank, subway systems average $50 million per kilometre. That means a 40-kilometre stretch in Winnipeg would cost about $2 billion. A lot of money? Yes. But $2 billion couldn’t buy anywhere near the amount of urban regeneration it would initiate — and Main Street needs more than a light makeover. Between a billion-dollar dam, a half-billion dollar airport terminal, and a mooted $300 million human rights museum, not to mention a the floodway expansion, Manitoba has proved we can afford big projects. Private markets, to flourish, require solid infrastructure, and the urban environment is lost without real rapid transit. A chintzy, bus-based system will only compound our problems both downtown and in the city in between.