LARGO — Ryan Hunter-Reay was working the pump and preaching the gospel at Ulmerton and Starkey roads. An Indy Racing League driver whose car is sponsored by the ethanol industry, he and several peers were filling up a long line of cars with ethanol-blended gasoline recently in a pre-Grand Prix of St. Petersburg promotion.
"Right here, pump 9," he beckoned.
It has been a tougher sell lately. Hunter-Reay and his counterparts have been buffeted by negative coverage about the viability and responsibility of using an organic-based fuel that as recently as a year ago was viewed as a cure-all. The question now is whether ethanol is still a viable platform for the IRL (which wielded environmental sensibility like a green hammer) or the American Le Mans Series, whose manufacturers use the series to prove ethanol can make their exotic cars' passenger equivalents go fast on the byways, too.
Six pumps down from Hunter-Reay, the message already had been diluted as Palm Harbor resident Elise Heffner topped off the tank of her economy car with gasoline that was 44 cents cheaper (thanks to a promotion) than a few blocks away. Although lured by cheaper gas, her view of ethanol was defined by a myriad of conflicting information.
"Ethanol I know comes from corn," she said. "And I know the farmers out in Iowa are growing a little more corn and they're growing less wheat, so that's raising our prices at the grocery store. So I'm wondering if it's worth it, with the give and take."
The idea of biofuels such as ethanol has been embraced by governments seeking independence from foreign oil, automakers pushing ostensibly greener cars and racing series trying to improve public image.
With a recent report from Princeton University scientists laying waste to many tenets that seemed to make ethanol a sound fiscal, social and environmental option, these entities are clambering to redefine or defend their positions. They're either asserting that ethanol was always meant as a transitional fuel, that the science of the recent reports is flawed or that the results do not apply to them.
One of the chief drawbacks of ethanol production, as described in recent reports, is the trade-off of land use for fuel instead of food. U.S. farmers last year planted the most corn since 1944, but 25 percent has been used for ethanol production, driving up soy and wheat prices. The energy used in producing corn-based ethanol made it more harmful to the environment than fossil fuels, some studies say. A Time magazine report asserted that the amount of corn needed to fill one SUV with ethanol could feed a human for a year.
"(People) don't get the whole story," Hunter-Reay said. "The corn (the IRL) uses to make ethanol isn't food-grade corn. You wouldn't eat it. It doesn't look right. This is fuel corn, low-down, dirty product put into the process."
The IRL, which races on 98 percent fuel-grade ethanol, is based in the Midwest and uses suppliers that derive fuel from corn. But it is moving toward cellulosic ethanol, generally seen as an improvement. It is made from parts of plants and wood but requires more processing.
The IRL, the first series to seize upon ethanol as a sponsor/fuel supplier, defends its use as an alternative to foreign oil, but commercial division president Terry Angstadt said the series is not committed to ethanol.
"We're looking right now at our potential options for equipment packages for 2011," he said. "That may or may not include ethanol."
The ALMS' 85 percent ethanol blend is produced in conjunction with KL Process Design in Wyoming and might represent the new cure-all, for now. KL clears and grinds Black Hills Forest waste into pellets for processing into ethanol. The plant is the first small-scale U.S. facility to use wood waste.
"All of the things that have been in the ethanol reports we don't believe apply to what we are doing," said Doug Robinson, executive director of the International Motor Sports Association. "From this particular part of the green initiative, we think we have a strong position that we feel really good about."
Robinson said KL's process yields more than twice the energy required to produce ethanol. The U.S. Department of Energy is studying the venture.
Corvette Racing Program manager Doug Fehan said that though General Motors does not consider ethanol the answer, it is a "worthwhile step," which is why his team used E85 in the ALMS race in St. Petersburg. A producer of 2.5-million flex fuel passenger vehicles, which can use up to E85 blends, GM uses the Corvette program to teach the public that its vehicles can attain high performance with ethanol.
"In ignorance there is fear, and if people don't know what ethanol-based fuels are, they will be reluctant to go in that direction," he said. Ironically, GM does not produce an E85-capable Corvette.
As with most things ethanol, in racing and real life, consumers and fans are expected to take someone's word for it and hope they can reconcile it later.