What the HEFF?

In a real-world demonstration of a hybrid electric flex-fuel vehicle, ACE is setting out to prove that that low- to net zero-carbon vehicles already exist, or could by combining the benefits of higher ethanol blends and existing hybrid platforms.
By Ron Lamberty | October 07, 2021

A couple years ago, the coolest thing you could be was a “disruptor.” Eventually the term was completely watered down as every minor change or update was called a “disruption.” And then a global pandemic showed everyone what real disruption looked like.

The term is now old and uncool enough for me to use, so as one who has been a disruptor since childhood (with report cards and notes from teachers to prove it) I’m happy to lead ACE's effort to disrupt—or at least interrupt—the current conventional wisdom about net-zero vehicles.

Conventional wisdom (generally more conventional than wise) understands “net zero vehicles” to mean plug-in electric vehicles. ACE is disrupting that narrative with a real-world demonstration that low- to net zero-carbon vehicles already exist—or could, with minor changes—and those very low-carbon vehicles are ethanol-powered.

EPA assigns carbon intensity (CI) scores to vehicles based on grams of CO2 per mile emitted while operating the vehicle. An all-electric car has zero emissions from vehicle operations, but the electricity used to power those vehicles is not zero emissions, and in many parts of the U.S., according to a recent study, plug-in electric vehicles almost always have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) operated on E85.

Apparently, plain old E85-powered FFVs having lower emissions than Teslas and other electric cars isn’t disruptive enough to garner attention. Fortunately, the GHG study mentioned above also showed a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle running on E85 would also have lower lifecycle emissions than full electrics. More interesting was the fact the largest part of the plug-in hybrid’s emissions came from ... being plugged in.

So, why not E85 in a standard hybrid vehicle? There are four times as many standard hybrids already on the road than any other electric vehicles, and four times as many FFVs as hybrids. Why hasn’t anyone combined those top two categories of U.S. alternative fueled vehicles?

CI scores exist for hybrids, plug-in electrics, plug-in hybrids, and standard vehicles, yet a combination not represented, and apparently not attempted in the U.S., is the one that seems to make the most sense: a hybrid electric FFV. Charging an electric motor battery during normal ICE operation is a sensible way to maximize the available energy in a liquid fuel, and from a carbon reduction standpoint, the fuel for when it’s not running on electricity should be the cleanest liquid fuel available: E85. Yet, no major automakers have ever offered a flex-fuel hybrid vehicle.

So, ACE made our own.

Pearson Fuels in San Diego introduced us to eFlexFuel Technologies, which installed a flex fuel converter on my 2019 Ford Fusion Hybrid, making it a Hybrid Electric Flex Fuel vehicle, which I named “HEFF.” We will be tracking HEFF’s mileage, maintenance, and estimated CI scores for the next three years. To date, E85 fuel cost is about a penny a mile less than gasoline and we’ve estimated current CI at 60 to 85 grams per mile. The lowest Tesla 3 CI score—in the summer, in California—is 70. The U.S. average is 140.

With help from CI Guru Ron Alverson, various studies, CARB CI pathway scores, and fueleconomy.gov, we’ve modeled this hybrid electric FFV with a total GHG score as low as 24 to 28 grams per mile running on E85 made with low CI ethanol blended with renewable naptha. That's lower than a Tesla Model 3. Plus, when EPA or CARB properly assess carbon intensity with current climate-smart farming practices, ethanol plant efficiencies, and give credit for soil carbon capture and sequestration, we’ll reach net zero far before Elon Musk. Stay tuned.

Author: Ron Lamberty
Senior Vice President
American Coalition for Ethanol