History of Ethanol Fuel Adoption in the United States: Policy, Economics, and Logistics

Caley Johnson, Kristi Moriarty, Teresa Alleman, Danilo Santini

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Ethanol has the achieved the greatest market share of all the alternative transportation fuels that have been researched, developed, and deployed in the US. There are multiple lessons to be learned from the history of ethanol adoption that can be applied to future fuels and products. Ethanol has replaced portions of gasoline in three main blend levels, with corresponding vehicles, equipment, benefits, and policies. The first is E10, which has replaced nearly all pure gasoline (E0) sold in the United States today (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2015). This was brought about through generations of policies that were motivated by multiple factors related to engine performance, energy security, health, air quality, and climate protection. Ethanol's high octane has been a consistent driver of the fuel because this enables higher performance engines. Early policies (1973-1979) were largely motivated by the desire to reduce dependence on petroleum sourced from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. Fuel policy in the 1980s was largely in pursuit of promoting octane number enhancers that could replace lead. Criteria pollutant reduction was the overarching goal of actions taken from 1990 to 2005. From 2005 to the present, fuel policy has been largely motivated by energy security and climate protection goals. These policies were usually technology-agnostic and promoted multiple fuels and additives during each period. However, ethanol is the only fuel identified that is cost effective with qualities that enabled it to prosper in the policy environments of all four of these periods.The second market for ethanol is via 85% ethanol (E85). This fuel has the advantage of a greater concentration of ethanol but the disadvantage of not being compatible with regular gasoline vehicles. Instead, it can only be used in flexible-fuel vehicle (FFVs), which can use every blend level from E0 to E85. Therefore, much of the effort to increase E85 consumption has been aimed at incentivizing automakers to manufacture FFVs, drivers to purchase FFVs, and fueling stations to equip themselves to sell E85.The third, and newest, market through which ethanol is consumed is 15% ethanol (E15), which builds upon the E10 market to increase ethanol consumption by common gasoline vehicles. Efforts to create the E15 market consisted largely of testing vehicles and refueling equipment for compatibility, creating waivers to allow the use of E15, placing requirements on E15 retailers, and incentivizing retailers to equip themselves to purchase E15.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages26
StatePublished - 2021

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-5400-76260


  • alternative fuel
  • biofuel
  • E10
  • E15
  • E85
  • ethanol
  • flexible fuel vehicle
  • octane


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