Ethanol 15: The View from the Road

Source: By MATTHEW L. WALD, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2012

Zarco 66, a filling station in Lawrence, Kan., is the first in the United States to offer the E15 blend.

Steve Hebert for The New York Times.  Zarco 66, a filling station in Lawrence, Kan., is the first in the United States to offer the E15 blend.

How much progress is ethanol making?

As I write in The Times, this week a gas station operator in Lawrence, Kan., just west of Kansas City, became the first in the nation to offer e15, the 15 percent ethanol blend that was approved in 2010 for some cars by the Environmental Protection Agency. The fuel is intended to be an alternative to e10, the blend that is now standard around most of the United States.

The operator, Scott Zaremba, will probably be the second and third, too, as he expands it to more of his eight gas stations, which have an unusual arrangement of “blender pumps” that allow the driver to push a button to select various blends of ethanol and gasoline.

He also sells e85, a blend of up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that can be burned in “flex fuel” vehicles, which some automakers hope will eventually catch on. Estimates of how many flex-fuel vehicles are on the road vary from nine to 12 million, and millions more are added each year. About half of the production at General Motors is flex-fuel vehicles.

But not all of those are burning e85, even in places where e85 is available. On Tuesday evening at the Lawrence gas station, I chatted with a variety of drivers, including Andrew Ramaley of Lawrence, who stopped to fill up his 2009 Chevy Suburban, a flex-fuel vehicle that can run on e85.

He had been using e85, he said, “and I had some problems with the injectors, and I was scheduled for a $6,000 engine whatever.” (“I’m not very mechanically minded,” he explained.) His mechanic told him to try regular gasoline instead, and the problem cleared up, he said.

Mr. Zaremba, a retailer who generally believes that the customer is always right, later expressed some skepticism about that theory, as did some other experts I consulted. But over the course of a few hours at the station, I did see various flex-fuel vehicles being filled with e10.

Mr. Ramaley said he liked the idea of e10 and higher-ethanol fuels like e15. “Lawrence is an eco-friendly town,” he said. “I’d like to put out less of a carbon footprint, and this might be a nice in-between. And I love the idea that it’s made from a renewable source.”

There were probably about 1,200 e85 pumps around the country at the fuel’s peak, but industry experts say the number is a little smaller now. The market may be voting with its feet.

At Mr. Zaremba’s station, e85 was priced at $2.959 on Tuesday, and e10 regular fuel at $3.299. But a tank full of e10 will deliver fewer miles; Mr. Zaremba said the e85 would probably have to sell for about 20 percent less than the e10 for the fuel to have a direct cost advantage.

The e85 does have higher octane, though, and in cars that can take advantage of that, it could be worth the price.

Mr. Zaremba runs e85 in a four-wheel-drive pickup with an 8.1-liter engine that often tows a trailer, and he said it performed better on the ethanol fuel. (That vehicle would look like a monster on the streets of an eastern city but is common and utilitarian in the farming country of eastern Kansas.)

The E.P.A. is still bullish on e85. On Wednesday night, after the deadline for my Thursday article, it responded to a question I had posed on Monday about where all the ethanol was going to go, as gasoline use declines and the auto and oil industries try to get the system to stick with e10 instead of e15. The agency said that one solution was e85, along with using ethanol in aviation and to replace home heating oil.

But the view from the field is mixed. Down the road, about 50 miles from Lawrence, in Barnett, Kan., where East Kansas Agri-Energy, one of Mr. Zaremba’s suppliers, takes in thousands of bushels of corn a day to make ethanol and corn oil, Doug Sommer, the plant manager, said that his Chevy Silverado ran on e85.

But when he came to town in 2007 to help start up the plant, there were three e85 pumps in town, and now there is only one. One of the pumps was at a gas station that closed, and another was converted to diesel.