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Region police departments see pros, cons to E85 initiative

By Pete Nickeas pete.nickeas@nwi.com, December 29, 2010

Region police departments trying to replace aging squad cars with newer ones capable of burning plant-based E85 are finding the task isn't as simple as choosing where to gas up.

The Griffith Police Department has more than 20 police cars capable of using E85, but they run on gasoline because gas stations in town don't dispense E85, and the town doesn't own an E85 tank.

Cars that run on E85 have a better acceleration rate than cars burning regular gasoline and emit less pollution than gas-fed counterparts.
The fuel costs less per gallon, too, but it may not be enough to make up for the 25 percent to 30 percent drop in gas mileage cars burning E85 experience.
"I have to figure out, with the mileage I put on my cars per year, and at a dollar less per gallon, and getting less mileage, I have to figure out if it's a cost savings," Griffith Police Chief Ron Kottka said.

Any fuel that's 85 percent ethanol, made from corn or other plants, is considered E85. Whether years of tax breaks and grant money for users and producers of plant-based fuels have been successful depends on whom you ask.

Environmentally friendly may not mean economical. E85 burns cleaner than gasoline, but questions linger over E85's cost efficiency, since cops have to spend more time and money on E85 than when using gasoline.

The Portage Police Department is one of five departments that obtained grant money through the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission to purchase flex-fuel vehicles.

Gary, Lake Station, LaPorte and Beverly Shores also bought police cars with the grant money. Other local governments purchased flex-fuel vans and trucks.
In exchange for the money, departments agreed to fuel the vehicles with E85. NIRPC monitors the fuel use to make sure everybody's sticking to the agreement.
"There's the economic value to us -- if grant funds are available to buy new cars in turn for using the E85, those are cars that don't have to be bought with local tax dollars," Cedar Lake Police Chief Roger Patz said.

Patz's department -- along with every other police force in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties -- is seeking money from a second round of NIRPC grant funding.
Gary Evers, transportation projects manager at NIRPC, said the five police agencies have reported spending more money on E85 than they had on unleaded gasoline.

"For non-E85, mileage is in the vicinity of probably 12 to 14 mpg, and with E85, we're getting eight to 10," he said. "But on the other hand, fuel is cheaper. I don't think it's cheap enough right now to break even."

Part of the reason for low mileage is because squad cars idle, Evers said. A patrol car might run for eight hours straight but will stop for 20 minutes at a traffic stop or to block traffic.

Fuel efficiency is less of a sticking point when departments don't have to cover the $20,000 purchase price of a police car, and may be moot if gasoline hits $5 a gallon in 2012, as one industry-insider recently predicted.

"I think the total amount of the grant was $491,000, at zero cost to the city," said Larry Jolly, assistant police chief in Portage. "You can buy a lot of gas for $491,000."

The goal of this program and others is to push drivers away from oil toward sustainable alternatives, such as E85. The policies are designed to wean Americans off oil produced in other countries while reducing pollution from gasoline-burning vehicles.

But despite years of government help, E85 is available in only 26 locations across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, among the most populated areas in the state.
Carl Lisek, co-executive director of South Shore Clean Cities, said future efforts will focus on improving access to the cleaner fuel, getting local governments to chip in on bulk E85 from suppliers and helping local governments install their own tanks.

"We're not saying ethanol or bio-diesel are silver bullets, but anything that reduces dependence on foreign oil and helps air quality is a benefit to the state," he said.

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Photo captions:

  1. Heather Eidson | The Times E85 is available in only 26 locations across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties such as this gas station at 109th and Randolph Street in Winfield.
  2. Heather Eidson | The Times Pete Theodoratos, of Porter Township, fills up his flex-fuel 2006 Chevrolet Impala on Tuesday at the Family Express gas station at 109th and Randolph in Winfield. Even though the fuel is nearly 75 cents cheaper than regular fuel, Theodoratos said he loses at least a couple of mpg on E85.
  3. John J. Watkins | The Times Portage police Officer Rich Schmitt fills up his patrol car with E85 fuel at the Family Express on Ind. 249 in Portage.
  4. Heather Eidson | The Times E85 is available in only 26 locations across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, among the most populated areas in the state.