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Alternative Fuel

Discover money-saving alternative fuel options.

Ethanol fuel, made from corn, burns more cleanly than regular gasoline. [© Jupiter Images, 2009]
© Jupiter Images, 2009
Ethanol fuel, made from corn, burns more cleanly than regular gasoline.

With increasing consumer concern for the environment and interest in "green" technologies, alternative fuel vehicles are becoming more and more popular. Emissions produced by regular, gasoline-run vehicles have negative effects on both citizens' health and the environment. For example, according to the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center, vehicles are responsible for 56 percent of carbon monoxide emissions, which can negatively affect those with cardiovascular disease. While alternative fuel vehicles do not necessarily eliminate harmful emissions, they do emit them at far lower levels than conventional gasoline vehicles.

There are a number of options to consider when thinking about alternative fuels; some of these options involve purchasing new vehicles, while others simply require one to take the time to find alternative fuels at the pump.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), commonly known as hybrids, combine a regular gasoline engine with a battery-powered electric motor. Hybrids run on gasoline but are supplemented by battery power, allowing hybrids to drive further on less gas. Both the gasoline engine and electric motor can power the vehicle at the same time, creating a parallel hybrid system. Unlike purely battery-powered vehicles, it is not necessary to plug in a hybrid, as built-in generators and regenerative braking systems recharge the batteries. Furthermore, like regular, gasoline-powered vehicles, HEV's performance and safety levels meet high expectations.

Since hybrids use battery power as well as gasoline, those who drive them cut fuel consumption in half, improving mileage and reducing emissions. In fact, one gallon of gas can sustain a hybrid for up to 70 miles. Additionally, when hybrids are running solely on the electric motor, no emissions are produced. Drivers can manually shut off the gasoline engine in high-traffic areas, where extra horsepower is not needed. This cuts back on emissions in city centers and saves gasoline for open highways.

Ethanol Fuel for Regular Vehicles

Corn is not only a good source of nutrition, but it can also be converted into a renewable fuel to run cars. Ethanol is a liquid alcohol produced by a fermentation process of certain trees and grasses. It is then blended with gasoline to create a clean-burning fuel. Ethanol-blended fuel at a ratio of 10 percent ethanol to 90 percent pure gasoline (E10) can run any foreign or domestic vehicle; choosing to fill up with this blend as opposed to regular gasoline can reduce harmful carbon monoxide emissions by up to 25 percent. Plus, even though ethanol blends produce slightly lower energy levels than pure gasoline, most drivers using this low-level blend cannot tell the difference between it and regular gas.

Using an E10 solution is as simple as choosing a different pump at the station, and it costs roughly the same as regular gasoline. Although producing ethanol-blend fuels is more costly than producing regular gas, government subsidies for blenders helps to offset this added cost. In addition to the reduction of harmful emissions, part of the reason why the government encourages the use of ethanol fuel is because it is produced in the country, supporting the national economy and reducing reliance on foreign suppliers.

Flexible Fuel Vehicles

Since ethanol fuel burns more cleanly than regular gasoline, using a blend with more than 10 percent ethanol is even better for the environment. Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, E85, or a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is considered an alternative fuel. However, unlike E10, any blends with higher amounts of ethanol can only operate specially designed vehicles. For those who are in the market for a new car and want to help the environment, a flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) is a cost-effective option. Since ethanol fuel is fairly corrosive, FFVs are made with special components and lubricants that can withstand ethanol. These vehicles, produced by many automakers, are capable of running on either regular gasoline or on a blend of up to 85 percent ethanol. Plus, prices of FFVs are generally on par with conventional gasoline vehicles. According to the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center, there were more than seven million FFVs in use throughout the United States by 2008.

Although consumers do not have to shell out extra cash to purchase a flexible fuel vehicle, filling them up can be a bit inconvenient, as E85 is not available at all gas stations. However, consumers can purchase this ethanol blend from at least 1,600 gas stations in 40 states around the country, with more and more regions beginning to offer E85. At the pump in these locations, some potential consumers may be enticed by the slightly lower price of E85 compared to pure gasoline. However, since this alternative fuel's gas mileage is slightly lower than gasoline, the cost evens out over time.

Tax Incentives

In addition to serving the environment, people who choose to drive alternative fuel vehicles can earn certain tax credits. According to Fueleconomy.gov, individuals who own hybrids that were either placed into service or purchased after December 31, 2005 may receive a federal income tax credit for qualifying vehicles. However, hybrids are not eligible for tax credits indefinitely. The catch is that the amount of credit offered lessens incrementally after the manufacturer has sold more than 60,000 of a given hybrid. For example, the two-wheel drive version of the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, which originally came with a $3,000 tax incentive, will offer just $750 by March 31, 2010, and the tax incentive will be fully phased out by April 1, 2010. However, purchasing the 2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid entitles consumers to a full tax credit of $2,200 and has not yet begun to be phased out.

Flexible fuel vehicles earn owners certain tax credits as well. Those bought before 2006 can earn owners as much as $2,000 in the form of a clean-fuel vehicle tax deduction. Plus, purchasing E85 for flexible fuel vehicles also entitles owners to tax credits in some states. Consumers can visit the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Centers Ethanol Incentives and Laws page for a list of incentives offered in each state.

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