Finding alternative fuels that work for boating
The Congressionally mandated U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard requires 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into the gasoline supply by 2022. As of now, the only biofuel being blended is ethanol, with a push to increase the amount of ethanol in the fuel supply through blends such as E15.
The boating industry is well aware that this does not bode well for marine engines. According to BoatUS, nine out of every 10 U.S. boaters own a trailerable boat, and approximately 60 percent of boaters fill up their tanks at gas stations. The continued increase of E15 availability creates more opportunities for misfueling, warranty voids and hazardous boating conditions.
However, the industry cannot use its voice to just say “no” — if there is a problem with the current state of fuel in the country, we need to be willing to provide a solution.
Enter biobutanol. Four years ago, the Engine Manufacturers Division (EMD) of the National Marine Manufacturers Association decided to start testing biobutanol in marine engines after hearing about companies such as ButaMax, a joint venture between BP and Dupont, and Gevo that were developing a process to produce biobutanol and are now looking at converting several ethanol plants. The EMD put together the first initial test program, overseen by the NMMA, in the summer of 2011. The following year, the U.S. Department of Energy improved the program through financial investment.
“It’s really been a great program for us, particularly as we debate and discuss the Renewable Fuel Standard,” said Jeff Wasil, engineering manager for emissions testing certification and development for BRP-Evinrude. “We can bring a lot more to the table as an industry having data that we’ve generated from testing and evaluating biobutanol. It puts us in a much better position as we can talk a lot more intelligently regarding biofuels.”
Thousands of research hours
The research was conducted on a variety of engines, which were tested on three different fuels: certification fuel, which is required by the Environmental Protection Agency to test engines on; E10; and biobutanol. The research included tests on combustion analysis, emissions, fuel consumption, power and performance to review the relative difference among the three fuels.
After this laboratory testing, the research group took what it learned and started a comprehensive field evaluation program by running several boats from different boat and engine manufacturers for a summer. The engines were taken back to the lab and thoroughly
inspected for issues.
“At the end of the day, all these tests indicate that there’s really no difference between a standard E0 gasoline and 16 percent biobutanol. It doesn’t phase-separate in the presence of water, like ethanol does. It’s not as corrosive as ethanol. It weathers better than ethanol,” said Wasil. “It behaves very much like standard gasoline did back when you could still get regular gasoline. Certainly everything that we’ve seen in the testing indicates it’s a very promising fuel, especially for the marine industry.”
Volvo Penta of the Americas is a part of the EMD, with Marcia Kull, vice president of marine sales, recently named as the chair of the EMD board. Kull said the company has been studying alternative fuels for a number of years
“We’re very excited about [biobutanol],” said Kull. “The EMD testing that’s been done on a wide variety of marine engines – ours, outboards, current generation, old legacy product – basically proves that biobutanol is better than E10 without any negative effects to the boat, the fuel system, the engine, the environment or the boating experience.”
The American Boat and Yacht Council is equally excited about biobutanol and has been very pleased with the entire testing process. John Adey, president of ABYC, described the relationship between the NMMA, engine manufacturers and ABYC as a three-legged stool: Manufacturers focus on products, the NMMA focuses on the regulatory effects and the ABYC focuses safety and use. He believes boaters and other industry stakeholders should feel confident in this relationship and the group’s ability to ensure they are doing the right thing for boating.
“We tear the engines down before we put the fuel in it; we tear the engine down after we put the fuel in it, and we put them under a microscope. I don’t really think any better, real-world testing could be accomplished,” said Adey. “We just hope some day it will be available at the pump.”
Unfortunately, large-scale availability of any type of alternative fuel will take time. While not an exact comparison, the partial waiver for E15 was issued in 2010. Five years later, E15 is available at about 100 gas stations in the U.S. See the map below for where E15 can be found as of May 2014.
However, Wasil suggested that some of the smaller companies looking to produce biobutanol and start their plants will not be producing large quantities for mainstream use, but it would be enough to be a good partner for a marina.
Easy as ABC
There are many different moving parts on the legislative side of alternative fuels, with millions of dollars invested in several lobbies. The only way biobutanol, or any other alternative fuel that is not harmful to marine engines, will have a chance to make it into the RFS is if the marine industry continues to advocate for it.
“We all want to do what’s right for the environment, and I don’t think anybody has anything against renewable fuels. We want safe fuels. As long as our boats work and get us home, we’re happy, and that’s what our goal is,” said Charles Fort, director, consumer protection and consumer editor at BoatUS Magazine.
The best opportunity for the level of advocacy needed is at the American Boating Congress, which took place for 2015 in May.
“ABC lets us just sit there and get it all in a half-day, and it’s terrific,” said Adey. “It’s like speed dating regulations.”
This year, ABC hosted a Team Hill meeting, which was a new opportunity to meet with leaders on RFS reform.
“Being a part of the conversation, meeting with those key decision makers, really is a prime opportunity to have our voices heard on ethanol reform,” said Nicole Valisaros, director of regulatory and legal affairs at the NMMA. “ABC is really the best opportunity to get in front of the key decision makers and stakeholders on Capitol Hill that can affect real change in terms of E15 and the Renewable Fuel Standard.”
Timing could not be better for the marine industry, either. The new Congress has been very interested in working with the NMMA on biobutanol and the more work the industry can do before the 2016 election, the better, as ethanol remains a hot political issue.
Lauren S. Dunn, senior public relations manager of government relations at the NMMA, said that if people want to stay engaged, whether or not they attended ABC, she encourages them to sign up at BoatingUnited.com. There, members can follow the ethanol issue, write letters to respective representation on the Hill and be an advocate year-round.
“It’s really kind of the advocacy hub and network online for the recreational boating industry,” said Dunn.
Kull said there is momentum in this new Congress to make progress on alternative fuels that work for the industry, but it requires action from everyone.
“What we need is every boat dealer, boat manufacturer, accessories and engine manufacturers to be at ABC [next year], really working hard with their legislators to ensure that alterative fuels with good outcomes, like biobutanol, have a chance to emerge to the RFS,” said Kull.
BoatUS has followed the efforts on biobutanol closely and kept its members informed along the way, who are all aware of the issues ethanol causes in a marine application.
“We know that renewable fuels are going to be part of the energy mix in our country. What we need to make sure is that there’s a safe fuel out there,” said David Kennedy, senior program coordinator of government affairs at BoatUS. “We’re always looking for those places to talk about [ethanol] and to get the word out.”
BoatUS has written several articles and released special reports discussing the policy side of the ethanol issue, and the organization has executed grassroots alerts to the states with higher ethanol blends to warn people about their presence and the damage that their blends can cause.
“Because you have this government mandate to push more and more ethanol into the market, it really isn’t making room for these alternatives to get out there and take a hold,” said Kennedy. “It’s important to keep in mind that this is a larger issue beyond recreational boating. It’s such a broad array of groups that are really pushing Congress for this reform, but an axiom of politics is that nothing moves unless it’s pushed. Well we need to push.”
At the end of the day, boaters want something that works in their engines, and the industry wants safe customers who can enjoy a day on the water without worry. For the industry, promoting changes to the RFS and making sure broader policies are put in place so that safe fuels can enter the marketplace is key.
“That’s why I think it’s worth people’s time to come [to ABC] and directly lobby on that: Tell the stories to the policymakers about what this is doing to their businesses, what it’s doing to their customers and that has enormous impact as the different groups – us, NMMA and national marine retailers – go to work with them and try to come up with a policy that really works,” said Kennedy.
Congress has seen increased momentum in the past year and a half to do something about the RFS. Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced two bills this year, HR 703 and 704, which aim to repeal and reform the RFS, respectively. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) have also introduced a bill, but Valisaros says the first step to reforming the RFS will be in the House.
“It’s getting chairmen set up the House Energy and Commerce committee to take notice, to see that there are a lot of co-sponsors for both of these bills [and] that there is a wide variety of House members from both sides of the aisle that care about this issue,” said Valisaros. “The goal is to have this heard in the Energy and Commerce committee and obviously brought to the House floor for a vote.”
This is of particular importance as the EPA recently released the proposed RFS mandates for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The corn ethanol volumes within the proposal call for 13.25 billion gallons in 2014, 13.4 billion gallons 2015 and 14 billion gallons in 2016. The proposal is required to be finalized by November.
If finalized, the blend wall will be breached next year, resulting in widespread increase availability of E15 in the market.
“As we’ve said before, the RFS is a broken law which sets unrealistic fuel mandates,” said Valisaros. “It should now be even more clear to Congress that the RFS simply does not work and they must take swift action to fix this failed mandate to protect the millions of consumers at risk.”
The NMMA is a part of the Smarter Fuel Future Coalition, which is a broad group of industries that have come together with one voice to say the RFS is a broken law and E15 is damaging their products and hurting their consumers.
“That’s actually been a really important group for us to become a part of, because the voice is so loud when you’re speaking with that many,” said Valisaros.
Valisaros added that it is important for the industry to stay informed about the state of the RFS and other fuel-related legislation because the boating industry needs to be aware of what fuel is in the marketplace, which is why getting this issue in front of Congress may be the only option.
“Marine engineers are building engines for two, three, fours years to come and the uncertainty that the EPA has caused by not setting the RVOs creates further uncertainty within our own engine manufacturers,” said Valisaros. “If the EPA can’t meet their obligations … the only way we can fix it is to go to Congress and fix the law that is generating this mandate.”