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Riding on E85: Better keep your gas credit card handy

An interesting exercise in alternative fuel utilization was conducted recently by Rick Tolman, chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association.

For a series of meetings, he drove his Yukon SUV from St. Louis to Chicago, then on to St. Paul, Minn., and back to St. Louis, with several refueling stops along the way. His goal was to power the trip solely with E85 gasoline/ethanol blend and to post observations on the NCGA Web site.

“I wanted to see how easy or difficult it is to plot a trip, trying to target E-85 stations,” he says.

The trip was planned around a listing of E-85 stations on the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition's Web site. On the road, his first fill-up was at a St. Charles, Mo., Mobil station, which didn't advertise E85 on its signs and had only one E85 pump, which was “difficult to find among all the others.”

“The price was ugly,” Tolman notes. “E85 was $3.22, while regular unleaded was $2.79. There would be little motivation for the average consumer to use E-85 at this price differential.”

His next fill-up, planned for DeKalb, Ill., ended up being an unmanned, fleet station not accessible to the public — not great news when he needed fuel, so he found a station with E10 and filled up. “I guess the silver lining with a flex-fuel vehicle is that you can use gas or ethanol, whichever is available,” he says.

Returning to St. Louis, Tolman filled up at St. Paul, Minn., purchasing E85 for $2.30 a gallon, 60 cents less than regular unleaded. At a Marion, Iowa, station run by a farmer-owned co-op that had several biodiesel pumps, he found the E85 pump “around back,” with a price of $2.89, 10 cents more than regular unleaded.

Back in St. Louis, he summarized the 1,400 mile trip:

Good: “A number of ethanol plants, blenders, and retailers are working together to pass on tax exemptions and hold retail prices well below regular unleaded. They want to keep building a long term market and customer loyalty.”

Bad: “Almost all the locations were independent stations. I saw little evidence of oil company franchises offering E85. You have to work to find stations, and it takes a fair amount of effort to plot a route — something few average consumers would be willing to do.”

Ugly: “Despite tax exemptions that should make it competitive, in a few locations E85 was priced well above regular unleaded. I believe most retailers who have put in E85 pumps are interested in doing the right thing and in trying to build a market. The real challenge comes with blenders who…don't pass on the tax exemption so consumers can benefit.”

If Tolman's trip was so logistically and price-challenging in the Midwest, where most E85 stations are located, it would've been impossible here in the Mid-South, where there are none, zero, zilch.

However noble ethanol's cause, it matters little unless (1) it's readily available and (2) sells at a competitive price to gasoline. Consumers won't hunt for it or pay a significant premium for it.

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