Ethanol From Trash: Is the Garbage-Fueled Car Finally Here?

Remember the end of Back to the Future, when Doc Brown drops a banana peel into the Mr. Fusion port to fuel up the DeLorean? Seemed pretty awesome (and pretty implausible). But now, that scene is no longer so far-fetched.

Two U.S. based companies, KiOR and INEOS Bio, recently announced that they have produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood chips and non-food plant matter. And INEOS says it plans to begin making ethanol using garbage from the nearby municipal landfill.

Yep, fuel made from trash … and right on schedule (if you recall, Doc was returning from 2015)!

The fact that it’s made from waste isn’t just cool — it also could make this fuel a truly viable alternative to gas. This is advanced cellulosic ethanol, not corn ethanol (which has been at the center of a lot of controversy in recent years).

The rise and fall of corn ethanol 

In the big green push of the last decade, ethanol made from corn seemed like our best bet for an alternative fuel. It can be produced domestically, can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and can cut greenhouse-gas emissions by about 20 percent compared with gasoline.

But some analysts say the emissions reduction is offset by the pollution associated with corn ethanol production. And those numbers don’t factor in land-use changes (forested land being converted to cropland), which can create their own share of greenhouse emissions. Critics of corn ethanol say it can also raise the price of food.

And while all gasoline-burning cars built after 1980 can run on a 10/90 ratio of ethanol and gasoline, only specially equipped flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) can use blends with higher percentages of ethanol.

These factors, combined with recent droughts, have taken a toll on ethanol producers and tarnished some of the shine on corn ethanol’s promise.

The advantages of cellulosic ethanol

Cellulosic ethanol is made from non-food vegetative matter, which can mean switchgrass, wood chips, yard clippings, and yes, household garbage. It doesn’t affect the price or abundance of food and (except for switchgrass) it doesn’t require large-scale cultivation. Plus, the waste used to create the ethanol can also be used to power the factories (INEOS, for example, uses methane from the nearby landfill). The factories often produce more power than they need and can sell the excess to utility companies. Because of these factors, cellulosic ethanol could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 85 to 95 percent compared with gasoline.

Cellulosic ethanol also shows strong potential as a drop-in biofuel (one that can be used in existing cars and trucks without special modifications). KiOR says its fuel is chemically identical to conventional gasoline.

From landfill to windfall

Americans generated over 36 million tons of food waste in 2011. That’s a lot of banana peels and coffee grounds. Wouldn’t it be great to use some of that to power our cars and help protect the earth in the process? My apartment building doesn’t allow for composting, and I feel kind of guilty tossing my wilted veggies in the trash. I’d feel much better if I knew they would have an afterlife.

We aren’t quite Back to the Future 

As exciting as these breakthroughs are, the oil companies shouldn’t get nervous just yet. Cellulosic ethanol would need to be made in very large quantities in order to be competitive with gasoline — and that’s still a ways off. Not everyone is a fan of biofuels, either. In fact, some experts feel that plug-in vehicles using solar- or wind-generated electricity are the better solution.

What do you think?

Is cellulosic ethanol the fuel of the future or just one more flash in the pan? Would you fill up your car with fuel made from trash? Sound off below.

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BMW Offers Innovative Solution to “Range Anxiety”

I’m kind of a car buff — it’s just a natural result of being born and raised in the Motor City. If you live in the Metro-Detroit area, you’ve probably had a relative in the car industry. In my case, my grandfather owned a Ford dealership and my first job was writing for General Motors. My family’s livelihood, as well as my own, was built on automotive and because it affects the city and people I love, I like to stay current on what’s happening in the car world.

So, when BMW recently announced that they planned to “redefine urban mobility” with their new, fully electric vehicle (EV), the i3, I had to take a look.

An impressive set of wheels that can accelerate to 60 mph in a mere 4 seconds, the i3 has a lavish interior featuring eucalyptus wood and a choice between “naturally-tanned leather” and “recycled textile” seats. It could be the perfect EV for shoppers looking to save the world in style. And, starting around $41,000, the i3 costs pretty close to the average price of a new BMW.

But what might be the most interesting aspect of the i3 release is the option for buyers to also purchase “Add-on Mobility.” A membership-like feature, Add-on Mobility gives owners access to larger, gas-powered vehicles for trips that their i3 might not be able to handle.

Although the average American drives only about 40 miles per day (well within the i3’s range of 80-100 miles), the fear of not being able to go farther without a charge is frequently a turn-off for shoppers. Add-on Mobility lets you head out on that weeklong camping trip with your air mattress and extra hobo pie supplies, without having to worry about plugging in along the way.

Ending “range anxiety”

While this approach isn’t entirely new (Fiat offers a similar incentive through a partnership with Enterprise Rental Car), it could be a step in the right direction to ease “range anxiety” (the fear your EV’s charge won’t get you where you need to go) and boost sales.

Although EV sales have already surpassed those from 2012, they’re not exactly flying off the lots. Last year closed out strong, with 8,000 EVs sold in December, but nationwide numbers have slowed, unable to break 7,000 since. Stagnant sales don’t necessarily mean a lack of interest, but are likely further proof that the demand for EVs isn’t growing as rapidly as manufacturers had hoped.

Other attempts to ease shopper aversions and jump-start sales have included battery leasing options, free charging services, and price reductions. Perhaps it’s still early on in the game for EVs. But we’re excited to see what happens.

Are you ready to go electric?

Could the option to trade for a larger, gas-powered vehicle to escape for the weekend be what finally gets more drivers in EVs? Are there any additional perks you’d need in order to make the switch (dealer delivers and picks up the gas-powered car, online reservations, or a free battery checkup when you swap cars)?

Or will you remain a fossil-fuel devotee until EVs offer better range at a more affordable price?

Share your thoughts in the comment below.

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The 6 Worst Towing Mistakes

Labor Day weekend is coming up and that means roads full of vacationers towing their homes-away-from-home behind them. If you plan to be one of them, make sure to avoid these common towing mistakes — you’ll enjoy your holiday much more and so will the people driving behind you.

1. Not knowing your ratings

Your tow vehicle (the vehicle doing the towing) can only carry and haul so much weight. Overloading your tow vehicle, trailer, or both can cause a whole host of problems like failing brakes, broken suspensions, overheated transmissions, or blown-out tires. None of these things make for happy campers, and some can be very dangerous.

Remember to look up your vehicle’s tow ratings before you attempt to tow anything and make sure your hitch system matches your vehicle’s towing specs. All of the following numbers need to be checked and complied with. Your tow vehicle’s specs are generally listed in your owner’s manual and on the sill of your driver’s-side door. Your trailer’s unloaded weight (along with its weight ratings) can be found on its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate.

Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): the weight limit for your vehicle (including the vehicle itself plus passengers, cargo, and accessories).

Gross combination weight rating (GCWR): the maximum weight of the tow vehicle plus the loaded trailer, equipment, passengers, fuel, and anything else you plan to haul or carry.

Gross axle weight rating (GAWR): the amount of weight a single axle can safely bear. It’s important to know this value for both your tow vehicle and your trailer.

Towing capacity: the amount of weight your vehicle can pull.

Tongue weight: the amount of the trailer’s weight that is borne by the trailer hitch. Ideally, this should be about 10 percent of the total trailer weight. Too much tongue weight will make your vehicle’s steering less responsive. Too little and the trailer might sway. Tongue weight can be measured using a specialized scale (available at trailer supply shops).

If you’re having trouble estimating the combined weight of your trailer plus cargo, take the loaded trailer to a vehicle scale at a nearby weigh station or truck stop.

2. Not checking the local regulations

A ticket is nobody’s idea of a great vacation souvenir, so remember that towing laws and restrictions vary from state to state. While most states require taillights on your trailer and safety chains that connect the trailer to the tow vehicle, some states also require special braking equipment or additional side and rearview mirrors.

States also differ on their maximum towing speeds, the maximum trailer width, and the number of vehicles you’re allowed to tow. So be sure to know the laws, not just for your home state, but for any state you might pass through.

3. Forgetting to put on the brakes (and the wires)

The added weight of the trailer gives your vehicle extra momentum, which means it takes longer to reduce your speed. For this reason, many states require trailers over a certain weight (usually 1,500 lb.) to be equipped with a separate braking system. Trailer brakes not only improve control, but also will stop the trailer if it gets separated from the tow vehicle. The 2 types of trailer brakes are electronic (which are attached to a controller in the tow vehicle) and surge (independent hydraulic brakes that are activated by momentum). Not all jurisdictions allow surge brakes, so check your local laws.

Because cars behind you can’t see the lights on your tow vehicle, federal law requires trailers to be equipped with brake lights, taillights, turn signals, and reflectors. These are powered by a connector that hooks up to your vehicle’s electrical system. Make sure your wires are taut enough not to drag on the road, but loose enough not to disconnect during turns.

4. Loading your cargo improperly

If your trailer is off-balance, it will be difficult to control. Make sure cargo is distributed evenly, with about 60 percent of the total weight in front of the axle (but not too far forward). Secure cargo items to prevent them from shifting and keep the overall center of gravity low.

RELATED: Towing and Labor Coverage Defined

5. Forgetting you’re towing a trailer

No matter how strong or nimble your tow vehicle is, it’ll be less responsive once it has a trailer behind it. Since you won’t be able to accelerate, turn, or brake as fast, you’ll want to look further up the road and give yourself extra time and space to change lanes or slow down. It’s also a good idea to do some short practice drives before heading out on your big trip.

6. Not checking tire pressure

If you haven’t taken your trailer out for a while, there’s a good chance the tires need inflating. Driving a fully loaded trailer with underinflated tires is very dangerous — underinflated tires produce more friction, which can lead to blow-outs and possible rollovers. Be sure to check the tire pressure on both your tow vehicle and your trailer before you go (and while you’re at it, check the tires themselves for signs of wear).

Check your coverage capacity

One safety precaution you should always take is having adequate insurance. If your tow vehicle is insured, you can get basic liability coverage for your trailer under your auto policy. But travel trailer insurance offers much broader coverage, including total loss recovery, personal effects replacement, funds for lodging if your trailer is damaged, and even a full-timers package (if you live in your trailer year-round).

Share your tips

Do your vacation plans generally involve a trailer or RV? Where’s your favorite place to go? And do you have any safety or planning advice to share? 

Related links

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Meet Esurance: Katie F.

How do our sales agents become Esurance experts? For many, learning the ropes at Esurance means getting to know Katie F. As a sales and customer service trainer, her job is to guide new associates through the often complicated insurance process.

Katie loves people. And whether she’s on a call with a customer or training new sales agents, her enthusiasm for developing relationships shines through.

Katie’s philosophy is to always move forward, which is evident both in her career and her hobby as a boater. In fact, life on the water helps keep her centered, at peace, and ready to take on the next adventure. (If we ever open an office in the Caribbean, Katie, we’ll call you.)

Get to know one of our very own. Meet Katie F.


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What Being in a House Fire Taught Me About Renters Insurance

Almost exactly one year ago today, at 2:35 p.m. on Monday, August 27, my apartment caught on fire. In the space of approximately 35 seconds, I gathered a few possessions in a laundry hamper as reddish-orange smoke curled through the window, and ran.

The fire had started spontaneously in the next-door neighbor’s electrical system. Since buildings are packed tight in San Francisco, it became a 2-alarm blaze (requiring a second set of fire department vehicles) within minutes. It was out in less than an hour. During that time, the fire, smoke, and asbestos contamination had damaged or ruined 80 percent of my possessions.

This experience taught me a lot about renters insurance, some of which I didn’t expect. Here are 5 things to consider before you buy.

1. Renters insurance seems like a waste of money … until it’s not

Depending on your policy, you’re usually covered for water damage, theft, and fire. (My policy included 17 additional coverages, including damage from falling aircraft debris and volcanic eruption, because you just never know.)

For a monthly premium that averages in the low double digits, you’ll likely get coverage for the contents of your rental apartment or house, assistance with a place to stay after the fire, and the guidance of someone well versed in helping people who’ve just been through house fires. You won’t know exactly what you’ll need help with, and I can’t tell you either, because each person’s situation will be radically different. But what you will want most in the entire world is someone who helps people cope with house fires for a living.

2. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Looking back, I went into a state of almost Nirvana-like calm over the week after the fire. Why? Because I’d already prepared. Granted, it was by accident, but I can still pass on my lesson.

A few months before the fire, a minor gas leak on our street forced us into a more leisurely evacuation. We slowly went through each room, debating what we might take in a “real” emergency. Family heirlooms? Photos? Jewelry? High on our list: favorite childhood stuffed animals and computer equipment.

My advice is to spend an hour walking through your house with a notebook. Write down everything you’d want to take, and back up or protect what you can now. Then, rewrite your list 5 times in order. Read it through a few times before you go to sleep one night.

I didn’t even consciously think about the list when I was evacuating for real, but I grabbed 8 out of my top 10 items. I happened to have a pop-up laundry hamper nearby, which became my repository for my laptop, jewelry boxes, and purse. In addition, the laundry hamper was half-full, and I now cherish those clothes that just happened to be in there. Know your escape route, what you’d take, and how you’d get your children and pets to safety. If you physically practice, even once, before a real emergency happens, your body will remember what to do.

3. Update your policy

I got my renters coverage when I first moved into my apartment in 2006 and owned almost nothing. By the time the fire happened in 2012, I’d accumulated 6 years’ worth of furniture, clothing, organic mattresses and linens, etc. If you have renters coverage, remember to update your policy every 1 to 2 years or after you make a large purchase. My policy coverage levels ended up being about $10,000 short. (Also, think through everything. I lost about $1,000 worth of just food and alcohol … which renters will usually cover.)

4. Ask questions

Even among the 8 of us affected, our policies differed dramatically. My policy gave me replacement value up to the limit I’d requested 6 years earlier (back when it would have cost about half to replace everything). But my insurance company never showed up at the house to help with the assessment and they only covered 2 weeks in a hotel.

In contrast, one woman in our building hardly received a replacement value for anything, but her insurance company showed up in hazmat suits, got everything cleaned (we were “hot” for asbestos contamination), and put her up in a gorgeous $5,000-a-month apartment in downtown San Francisco for 6 months. Another resident had no insurance and had to pay out of pocket for everything to be cleaned and stored. Ask yourself what’s most important to you (housing, replacement value, or both) and then make sure your policy takes care of those things.

5. What matters most may surprise you

It’s true what they say: as long as you’re safe, that’s what matters. For me, one of the least stressful aspects of the fire was losing my possessions. (I’m sure people who lose everything might sing a very different tune.) Homelessness, bureaucracy, safety, having to depend on the kindness of friends and strangers — these were the parts of my experience that affected me the most. But, with some forethought, preparation, and an understanding of what you can expect from your renters insurance, you can get through this. Trust me.

Today’s post comes to us from travel writer Alex Leviton. You can read more about her experience at her blog, Like a House.

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