The State of California has had an experimental methanol program that ran for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. From all we have learned thus far, it makes you think California is a separate country (map above is from Peter Ward 2012). The assessment of both state officials and of Ford motor company was that is was successful. This was in an age when vehicle on-board computers where primitive, and fuel injection was just a feature of the most advanced cars. Still all issues where successfully accommodated. Today, with the much more powerful 32 bit on-board computers, changes in timing, etc., can be made easily. Furthermore, since 10% ethanol has been added to regular grade gasoline, and the EPA has approved 15% ethanol to regular grade vehicles build from model year 2001, the issues of fuel system and valve seat wear have been drastically reduced. For Flex Fueled vehicles (so called E-85 vehicles) both of these problems have been solved for mixtures with methanol mixtures as high as 56% (Lotus Vehicle Engineering), and some say much higher. With this as background lets look at the California Methanol Fuel Experience.
6. Why the California Methanol Experiment was Stopped
The price of methanol (vs. gasoline) was not favorable in the mid 1990's as it is today. The table below (Table 5 Ward and Teague) shows a comparison in 1995. Two key trouble points come out that don't exist today.
A) The first is how close the price of methanol and gasoline were. Methanol cost $.50 and gasoline rack price of $.69 per gallon. Today, of course, methanol is $1.3 and gasoline is $3.50.
B) The second is that these vehicles did not have the benefits of powerful computers, computer software and fuel injection.
C) On June 18, 1989, a major refiner announced what they called Reformulated gasoline, a blend that did not contain lead, but which, due to its benzene, toluene, and xylene could meet the octane demands with lower pollution than gasoline had up to that time. Not as low as methanol, but low enough that they could stay with petroleum that they made the most money from. It is clear that their creation of reformulated gasoline was primarily encouraged by their fear of loss of market share to methanol.
D) Furthermore, by including the, now banned, additive MTBE, which is made from methanol, they co-opted the methanol industry from moving ahead with direct methanol fuel.
In Roberta Nichols words, "The air quality benefits of methanol had become the near-term and primary driver for the programs designed to encourage its use in the transportation sector. There was a brief renewal of interest in the long-term energy issues because of Desert Storm in 1991, but mostly people had returned to a state of complacency about future oil supplies. By the middle of the decade, energy security was no longer on the "radar screen" of the California Energy Commission (CEC). Gasoline was cheap, plentiful, and reformulated."
Finally, the concept of a 'modern' electric car, which would have zero emissions captured the attention of the California legislature. Their efforts and money turned to seeing these cars on California roads.
The other showstopper was pure politics. By the last 1990's the farm lobby was pushing congress for the ethanol mandate that we now have in place. So this "perfect storm" of circumstances doomed the California methanol experiment. But times have changed. All of the points above have evolved to make methanol attractive once again. And furthermore, air pollution and Greenhouse Gas issues have grown in importance.