Washington and motorists have taken to gasohol in a big way since its introduction at local service stations earlier this year, with more than 125 dealers here now selling nearly $1 million worth of the blend of gasoline and grain alcohol each month.
While gasohol has not yet proved to be a cost-saver -- it sells locally at as much as six cents above regular unleaded -- motorists appear to be attracted to it as a means of energy conservation and because of the cleansing efffect they believe it has on their car engines.
"Everybody says, it improves their performance," said Wes Sealock, an attendant at his ffather's Texaco station in Alexandria.
Officials at Texaco, the largest gasohol retailer, say the product accounts for 13 percent of the company's sales in Washington, despite the high price. They claim that sales would be much greater if not for a temporary nationwide shortage of grain alcohol.
"In the gasoline business, alcohol is perhaps the fastest comer since unleaded took off early in the 1970s," reported the Lundberg Letter, a petroleum marketing newsletter. "Scarcely known a little over a year ago, probably more than 2,000 stations now handle it, and the number is certain to leap in the mouths ahead."
Texaco stations compose the bulk of the gasohol dealers, with more than 1,400 company stations selling it here and across the nation. Amoco and other major companies sell it, too, put primarily in grain-producing regions of the Mid-west where farmers are especially fond of it because it provides another market for their grain.
But some companies, including Exxon and Shell, refuse to market gasohol. Exxon asserts that it actually takes more energy to produce the alcohol in gasohol than is saved by its use in automobiles.
"Unfortunately, the ethanol (grain alcohol) currently available in this country for gasohol blending . . . comes from manufacturing processes which consume as much or more energy in the form of petroleum or natural gas than ethanol yields as a fuel," said an Exxon statement.
Experts disagree on the question, however.
A technical study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, which studies technical mattters ffor Congress, tends to contradict Exxon's flat statement, concluding that an efficient distillery fired by oil or natural gas can save the equivalent of one-third gallon of gasoline for every gallon of ethanol produced.
If the distillery were coal-fired, the equivalent of a full gallon of gasoline could be saved, according to the study.
Most of the alcohol used in gasohol now is made by Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. in Illinois and Publicker Industries Inc. in Philadelphia. Both companies fire distilleries with natural gas or oil but plan to convert to coal.
The alcohol comes to the Washington area in big tank trucks. The 200-proof "power grade" alcohol (as opposed to "beverage grade," which requires more expensive distilling), requires in Texaco's specially treated Fiberglas alcohol tanks located in Fairfax City.
There, it is mixed with gasoline that comes by pipeline from refineries on the Gulf of Mexico -- refineries that use much crude oil imported from the Middle east.
The resulting gasohol -- 1 part alcohol and 9 parts unleaded gasoline -- is then distributed to stations.
The Carter administration has made gasohol a key element of its energy program, proposing a $3 billion loan program to promote distillery construction and an extension of the already-existing exemption for gasohol from the 4-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax.
The exemption amounts to a 40-cent-a-gallon subsidy of the alcohol component of gasohol, which some critics say distorts the nation's alcohol markets (alcohol is also used in manufacturing chemicals) and gives gasohol an unfair competitive edge.
President Carter set the nation's production goal at 500 million gallons of gasohol by the end of 1981 -- six times what is produced now and enough to replace 10 percent of the current demand for unleaded gasoline. That could extend the U.S. annual fuel supply by 1 1/2 days, according to a Shell study.
Sixteen states, including Maryland, exempt gasohol from all or part off state gasoline taxes. The exemption is 4 cents in Maryland, but Virginia and the District still subject gasohol to the full tax. As a result, the price of gasohol at the pump is generally a few cents cheaper in Maryland than in othe other local jurisdictions.
The average price of a gallon off gasohol in the Washington area was 131.4 cents in a recent week, a Washington Post survey showed. Unleaded regular at the same time averaged 129.4 (full-serve) and 126.6 (self-serve).
Texco markets gasohol as a premium unleaded fuel, but some other oil industry spokesmen regard it as a "super regular" product -- not quite premium.
Gasoline prices have been fairly steady for the past few months, but iff they soar again and the price of alcohol -- now about $1.75 a gallon -- remains steady, the demand for gasohol could rise sharply as its price becomes more attractive.
ADM and Publicker said they are vastly expanding their alcohol production capacity and that any shortage of alcohol production capacity and that alcohol production capacity and that alcohol is just temporary.
Some analysts have raised the specter of Americans driving on grain while the world starves.
"The stage is set ffor direct competition between the affluent minority who own the world's 315 million automobiles, and the poorest segments offf humanity, for whom getting enough food to stay alive is already a struggle," wrote Lester R. Brown in a recent publication of Worldwatch Institute, a think tank.
But the OTA study concludes that 1 to 2 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption can be provided by alcohol "without a significant impact on food and feed prices."
And William C. Holmberg of the U.S. Energy Department's office of alcohol fuels said there is no straight tradeoff between food and fuel. U.S. grain bins are overflowing and still there is hunger in the world, he said.
Fairfax County has been the only local government here to try gasohol, but it stopped using it after learning that gasohol's higher price would add $191,000 to the country's fuel bill this year.
"I think imposing that increase with budget constraints at this time is unacceptable," said John F. Herrity, chairman of the county Board off Supervisors.
In other respects, the county's test of gasohol in 20 police cars disclosed no significant problems with it. Some inexpensive rubber hoses had to be replaced after the alcohol apparently wore them out.
Experts confirmed gasohol "cleans out" engines, breaking loose gunk and sometimes requiring the gas ffilter to be cleaned.
The Fairfax police even got better mileage with gasohol: 8.6 miles a gallon instead of 8.4 with unleaded.
"Gasohol reduces my car engine knocking," said Kensington motorist John Omachel, who uses it in his '78 Ford.
"I like the smell, it smells so sweet," said New York Avenue Texaco dealer Michael Liu.
"The public has given gasohol a very favorable response," said American Automobile Association spokesman Hank Downey. "A segment of the motoring public uses it as part of their own personal fuel conservation effort."