Gavin P. Smith – The Griffin Report
The drumbeat of the green-olution gets louder and louder by the day. However, as has been proven by society throughout history, people, laws and habits are slow to change. It seems this also applies to the use of alternative fuels, which has been slow to move into the mainstream.
In Florida, attempts were made a year ago that indicated that ethanol might become as commonplace as diesel and unleaded at the pumps. Full of pomp and circumstance and garnering plenty of publicity, then Governor Jeb Bush stopped at the Inland Convenience store on North Monroe Street in Tallahassee and pumped ethanol into an SUV. There was a press conference and a lot of talk about how stations providing ethanol would be sprouting up all over Florida.
One year later, this appears to have happened, at least on the surface. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, their site (www.e85refuel.com) offers a link to a search for Florida ethanol locations. According to a search for ethanol stations online, some 240 results were returned. However, this number can be misleading. Some of these may be private outlets at government facilities or outlets for business use only. Despite all of the hoopla and publicity of “going green”, getting alternatives such as E85 to the market remain tough.
What is E85? This grade of ethanol represents the highest concentration of ethanol in a mixture for fuel consumption. It simply means that 85% of E85 is ethanol, while the remaining 15 percent is in the form of added gasoline. This is the minimum amount needed in the current mixture to help an engine start. In order to run E85, you must have a compliant vehicle. Therefore, getting the ethanol pumps in place isn’t the hard part. Convincing people to purchase Flexible Fuel Vehicles is a problem.
Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) are more readily available than most people realize. FFVs have been available since 1995, in the form of Ford Taurus’, Crown Victorias, Explorers, Rangers, and Lincoln Town Cars. Other manufacturers including Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Buick, Chevy, Saturn, GMC, Pontiac, Mercury, Mazda, Isuzu, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz have FFVs. There are currently around 5 million on the road in the U.S. today, and many standard vehicles can be converted to an FFV simply and cheaply enough. However, most people choose not to “go the extra mile” to use ethanol as an alternative due to the reduction in gas mileage. Burning ethanol produces less energy than gasoline, and results in a small dip in mileage rates for city and highway. This lack of immediate benefit causes most to forego the switch.
After a full year in service, how has the initial ethanol pumping station been received in Tallahassee? The company that opened it, Inland, part of the Southwest Georgia Oil Co., recently sold the store to NC-based The Pantry Inc., with plans to convert the property to a Kangaroo Express. Whether the ethanol pump remains is uncertain. Glennie Bench, Vice-President of Finance and Administration for Inland Convenience stores, reports that the popularity of ethanol under their ownership was mixed at best.
“Despite a lot of interest in the availability of the product, the sales did not materialize as we had hoped,” stated Bench. “Despite the fact that the State of Florida has many flex-fuel vehicles being operated in Tallahassee, very few were willing to drive outside their normal routine to fuel with E-85. Those flex-fuel vehicle owners that lived or worked near our store were taking advantage of the availability of the product however. Our conclusion was that, similar to convenience store operations in general, unless the E-85 product is readily and easily available, customers will not purchase it if they have to make an extra effort to get it. This is a function of logistics, not price, as we priced the E-85 competitively with regular unleaded (as opposed to premium despite its octane) to allow for the fuel efficiency differences between E-85 and 100% gasoline.”
In addition to sluggish reception by individuals and businesses, there have been legal glitches that have also hampered the spread of ethanol pumping stations across the U.S.
“The issue of Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certification of E85 dispensing equipment has been a major concern to ethanol advocates since the release of an October 5, 2006 memo from UL,” states Michelle Kautz, Director of Communications for the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition. “This memo ‘rescinded’ previously certified E85 equipment. Since that time, several local Fire Marshals have shut down public E85 fueling stations based on the fact that no UL certified equipment now exists.”
The NEVC has been fighting this hurdle for the past year.
“It’s unfortunate that this storm of confusion has resulted in a number of closures of existing E85 fueling stations and the delay in openings of others,” stated Phil Lampert, Executive Director of the NEVC. “The UL October 5 announcement inadvertently established a level of doubt in the minds of fire and safety officials regarding the safety of existing E85 dispensing equipment. We have personally met with the Director of Government Affairs for UL and have had daily conversations with senior UL management. Our management and staff are working very closely with UL officials and will be attending a technical meeting to discuss this matter. We are confident that UL is aggressively addressing this matter and are working with them to establish proper certification standards.”
As with any product, the main principles apply – price, value and convenience. The price is competitive, as reports show, and its value as a renewable energy source is established (especially in a time of ‘green’ awareness). Therefore, convenience becomes the final roadblock.
“Until the E-85 product is easily available to motorists, it will not be widely accepted by the public,” said Bench. “And until Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) establish standards for E-85 fuel dispenser manufacture, it will be impossible for retailers to broaden the product offering.”
To date, there are only 1,030 E85 fueling locations throughout the U.S., most located in the corn belts of the Midwest.
• Email from Glennie Bench, Vice-President of Finance and Administration for Inland Convenience
• Email from Michelle Kautz, Director of Communications for the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition