Should You You Pay Extra For Ethanol-Free Gas? Here’s Fuel for Thought

a gas sign
Why does ethanol-free gas often cost as much as 50 cents more per gallon? Is it worth it? alptraum/Getty Images

When you drive 2,500 miles in five days — which I recently did as part of an epic summer road trip — you get really familiar with fueling stations.

And even if you’re a die-hard, always-regular-unleaded Penny Hoarder, you start to notice the intricacies of what’s on offer at your local Town Pump. (Yes, that’s a real gas station chain in the Mountain West. No, I don’t know what their marketing team was thinking.)

Which is to say, I got to wondering: What is this ethanol-free gas that I keep seeing advertised, and why does it often cost as much as 50 cents more per gallon? Come to think of it: What’s ethanol, and why is it in the plebian gas I’m used to?

What is Ethanol, Anyway? The word “ethanol” might look familiar even if you haven’t taken a road trip in a while.

That’s because it’s alcohol — yes, that alcohol, the same one found in your nightly tipple or after-work happy hour beverage.

As it turns out, ethanol works a lot better as a fuel source for cars than it does for humans, and it’s greener than regular gasoline. For one thing, it produces far fewer harmful carbon emissions than petroleum-based fuel sources — and unlike gasoline, it’s renewable.

Instead of pulling from a finite source of oil in the ground, ethanol can be easily synthesized the exact same way the bottle of vodka in your freezer was: by fermenting sugar. The most common source of that sugar these days is corn, which, as you probably know, is cheap and abundant in the United States.

Ethanol’s not just better for the planet — it’s also putting money in American workers’ pockets.

According to a study conducted by ABF economics, the ethanol industry contributed an estimated $45 billion — yes, with a B — to the U.S. GDP in 2017. The Renewable Fuels Association, or RFA, states that the production and use of ethanol “supported almost 15,000 jobs and nearly $6 billion in GDP through exports alone.”

According to RFA, “Today all vehicles can run on E10” — that is, the 90% gasoline/10% ethanol blend commonly found at American fueling stations. And automakers are busy working on models that utilize much higher percentages. Consumer vehicles sporting E85 engines, or engines that can run on a blend of up to 85% ethanol, are already fairly common; some race cars and other technical vehicles are powered by pure alcohol.

An affordable, clean, renewable source of energy that helps our economy and keeps us from fracking our planet into oblivion — sounds pretty great, right?

So Why Are Some Fuel Producers Taking Ethanol Out of Gasoline?

a no ethanol sign on a gas pump.
A gas station pump for E-85 fuel, which contains up to 15 percent ethanol, in Batesville, Miss. Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to ethanol.

Alternative fuels are sold by the “gasoline gallon equivalent,” or GGE — i.e., how much of that fuel it takes to produce the same power as one gallon of pure gasoline. Ethanol’s GGE is about 1.5, which means you’d need an extra half-gallon of pure ethanol to generate the same energy as one gallon of gas.

To put it in layman’s terms, gasoline is more powerful than ethanol.

For most engines, ethanol isn’t a sufficient fuel source on its own; rather, it’s useful as a blending agent to stretch our gasoline supply. And although most consumer vehicles’ engines will tick right along on a 10% blend, older models weren’t designed with hybrid, or “flex,” fuels in mind — which leaves some drivers concerned about its potential long-term effect on their engines.

A few years ago, the EPA updated its renewable fuel standard to make a 15% ethanol blend legal for all consumer vehicles, drawing ire — and a lawsuit — from automakers, who claimed it could damage older engine models and confuse consumers at the pump. (I can personally back up the latter argument.)

And according to Popular Mechanics, ethanol can, in fact, damage engines, due to a series of technical, auto-mechanical processes I don’t totally understand and will let you read at the source.

Anecdotally, many drivers are convinced ethanol damages their engines. For instance, in a 2014 report by a Fox affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a man named Dustin Conger suggested that ethanol-blended fuels actually make his check engine light come on — leading him to seek out and fill up with 100% gasoline, despite the extra difficulty and expense.

OK, But Do You Actually Need Ethanol-Free Gas?

old gas pumps at an abandoned gas station.
sunara/Getty Images

The answer depends on the age of your vehicle and how concerned you are with the potential for long-term engine corrosion.

It’s a tradeoff: You can pay more now to hedge your bets against future damage, or you can stick with the low-percentage ethanol blend that seems to have been doing just fine for most motors since the early 2000s when it was implemented as a widespread additive. The EPA contends that you’ll be all right with a blend of up to 15%, and it’s definitely better for the environment.

If you do choose to buy ethanol-free gasoline, here’s something that might help you feel a little better about the splurge: Although it’s more expensive, pure gasoline is a denser fuel source, which means you’re getting more bang — literally — for your buck. It works the same way as purchasing the pricier lean versions of ground beef; you’re actually getting more product, since you’ll have less meat by weight after the fat cooks out of the cheap stuff.

As for my 2005 Honda beater, it’s been running on an alcohol blend for almost 200,000 miles — and it has no intention of becoming a teetotaler this late in the game.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer based in St. Augustine, Florida. She’s written for Yahoo, SELF, Ms. Magazine, the Establishment, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets.