Thorntons gas stations introducing new ethanol fuel

Source: By Mike Nolan, Chicago Tribune • Posted: Thursday, June 30, 2016

While corn-derived E85 fuel has been in the Chicago market for a number of years, one gas station operator is betting that a fairly new ethanol-gasoline blend will be a hit with drivers.

E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is widely available in the south and southwest suburbs, and is priced substantially cheaper than regular unleaded, which contains up to 10 percent ethanol.

It can be used only in flex fuel vehicles, however, limiting its potential market.

Thorntons has begun equipping some of its Chicago-area stations to dispense E15, which contains 15 percent ethanol, and is converting other local stations to carry the product.

One knock against E85 is that the higher ethanol concentration doesn’t provide the same bang per buck as gas with the 10-percent ethanol blend, with drivers seeing reduced fuel economy. The E15 blend, which Thorntons is selling as Unleaded15, has a slightly higher octane than regular unleaded, and, the company says, can be used in any vehicle made since the 2001 model year.

Miles-per-gallon are on par with regular unleaded, according to the company, now pricing it 3 cents less per gallon than regular, although that could change, according to Matt Nichols, a project manager with the Louisville, Ky.-based chain.

Nine of the company’s stores in the Chicago market offer E15, including Blue Island, 2330 127th St., and Oak Lawn, 9138 S. Cicero Ave. The E15 fuel has been available since March at the Oak Lawn store.

It will be available at the Orland Park Thorntons, 7600 W. 159th St., starting Friday, according to Ulysses Ochoa, a regional manager with the company, and work will start that day to refurbish the company’s Midlothian location, 14805 S. Cicero, to offer the fuel.

At an event Tuesday touting Thorntons rollout of the fuel, Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, called it “something we need to promote throughout our state,” and that the company’s investment is “a big deal for our area and a big deal for the state of Illinois.”

He chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Ethanol was seen as a way to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil at a time, before the recession, when oil prices were surging. Companies were tripping over one another scrambling to get plants to turn corn into a new fuel source.

Producers have faced a glut of supply and are hopeful the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will, under the federal renewable fuels law, require a larger amount of ethanol and other renewable fuels be blended with gasoline next year.

The availability of E15 in the Chicago market has been limited, and “Thorntons is really breaking new ground,” Dave Loos, technology and business development director for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and Illinois Corn Growers Association, said at Tuesday’s event.

Thorntons said it will eventually have the fuel at all of its Chicago-area locations.

Nichols said 80 percent of the vehicles currently on the road can use E15 fuel, although when it was introduced at the Oak Lawn station in March, some customers initially expressed concerns about whether it would cause damage to their engines, Maria Stehle, station manager, said.

“Once we explain (what the fuel is) they starting filling up,” she said. “The more they (customers) know the more they use it.”

On Tuesday, the station was selling E15 at $2.33 a gallon compared with $2.36 for regular unleaded and $1.90 for E85.

Nichols said the 3-cent discount is part of Thorntons’ strategy as the fuel is rolled out to the market, but couldn’t say if that strategy would be maintained for the long term.