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[social_buttons] Dutch firm Green Fuel Systems, along with several other companies, has developed flex-fuel conversion kits for the Toyota Prius that cost less than $1,000. Converting our existing fleet to second-generation ethanol could be the best near-term play to directly replace fossil fuels.

Although the concept of a hybrid/biofuel combo has been around for a while, it has (at least in our minds) mostly been in the form of diesel hybrids running on biodiesel (which isn’t going to happen). But what if we could take America’s most fuel efficient car and convert it to run on another domestically-produced renewable fuel: cellulosic ethanol?

It looks like that’s what Green Fuel Systems and a handful of other US-based companies want to do. Although ethanol has been beaten to a pulp by mainstream media, non-food based feedstocks (like switchgrass) are in the pipeline and could be seriously producing in the next five years. If you’re still not convinced, make sure to read this article: Dedicated Energy Crops Could Replace 30% of Gasoline.

While details on Green Fuel Systems’ specific product are lacking (and it’s not even clear if this is coming to the US), two US-based companies selling the same thing, and their systems are cheaper.

For example, a 4-cylinder flex-fuel conversion kit from Change2E85 costs less than $500. They even have a simple video describing how to install it. We’ve also previously covered AAMCO’s promotion of Flex Fuel US’s kits, and the holy grail: Ford’s prototype flex-fuel Escape plug-in hybrid that gets 88 mpg running on E85.

Converting our existing fleet of vehicles to flex-fuel capability, along with building it into new models, is arguably one of our best plays to reduce fossil fuel dependence in the next 10 years. GM thinks so, which is why by 2012, 50% of their new vehicles will have this capability.

But converting old vehicles instead of building brand new Chevy Avalanches, which get something like 15 mpg, makes much more sense. In terms of new vehicles, the most ideal would be a fuel-sipping plug-in hybrid running on E85 ethanol, produced from a second generation feedstock like switchgrass, miscanthus, or sorghum.

This is just one element of a three-part strategy to transition off our dependence on oil. If you visualize our nation’s oil consumption as a single barrel, we can try to eliminate it in thirds:

  • 1/3 of it gets cut out with increases in efficiency and conservation
  • 1/3 comes from direct replacements, like second-gen ethanol
  • 1/3 of it comes from new technology, like plug-in hybrid, electric, and hydrogen cars

The direct replacement part is particularly important, and there’s no way all the exciting new technology like plug-in and fully electric cars will do anything to offset the millions of cars already on the road. If it only takes a few hundred dollars to convert a car to run on E85, it might only be a paycheck away.

That is, of course, dependent on the full-scale implementation of economically viable cellulosic ethanol production and refueling infrastructure. If any of a number of developments pan out, the former should be in place in the next few years, and refueling infrastructure should follow suit.

More Posts on Flex Fuel and Cellulosic Ethanol:

Photo Credit: Beth and Christina via Flickr under Creative Commons License