Ethanol-Based Fuel Enthusiasts Face Lack of Pumps

Adding new pumps and tanks for the cleaner-burning, ethanol-based fuel known as E-85 is a pricey proposition for service stations, and refineries can't use the same pipelines that they use for regular oil. Despite the obstacles, automakers plan a big push to sell flexible-fuel cars.

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General Motors, Ford, and other automakers, want more visibility for their flexible fuel vehicles. These cars can burn fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and the companies are putting more of them on the market.

Corn-based E85 is promoted as cheaper and cleaner burning, but many motorists wanting to live green and go yellow, as the GM slogan says, have a hard time finding places to fill up.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

There's a lot that's unusual about Charlie's Marathon Service Station on St. Charles Road, in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park.

First of all, when's the last time you heard this...

(Soundbite of bells)

SCHAPER: ...at a gas station?

(Soundbite of bells)

SCHAPER: Second, Charlie's actually has a garage. You know, with mechanics?

Mr. CHARLIE PICKEREL(ph) (Owner of Charlie's Marathon Station, Chicago): One of the few left that still has gasoline and auto repair.

SCHAPER: Second generation owner Charlie Pickerel doesn't have a big food mart. And unlike the huge rival station a few blocks away, with nearly two dozen gas pumps, Charlie's just has four.

Mr. PICKEREL: That's why I was anxious to add the E85, because it gives us - we have diesel and we have E85, so we have two things that a lot of stations don't have.

SCHAPER: E85 is 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline. It burns cleaner than regular gas, reducing pollution from exhaust. And E85 costs less. At Charlie's, it's about 15 cents a gallon less. But in some parts of the country, E85 costs 50 cents a gallon less.

Close to six million vehicles can run on E85 as well as regular gas. And with automakers pushing these flex fuel cars even harder this year, that number is expected to soar.

But across the country there are hardly any gas stations selling E85. Even in the Chicago area, in the corn growing state of Illinois, there are fewer than 20. And Charlie Pickerel thinks he knows why.

Mr. PICKEREL: It's probably reflective of costs, you know, because for a station to put it in, unless they were building a new station from scratch, to put it in the cost is quite substantial.

SCHAPER: Well, how much does it cost?

Mr. PICKEREL: The work that was done here was approximately $75,000.

SCHAPER: What does that include?

Mr. PICKEREL: A tank, tearing up the driveway - you can see the new concrete through there and the new island - and the pump.

SCHAPER: He says rubber valves and gaskets couldn't be used in the tank lines and pump because ethanol causes them to disintegrate. And it corrodes, so Pickerel took special precautions with the storage tank.

Mr. PICKEREL: It is a different type of tank, because there's so much alcohol content in the gasoline. It's a fiberglass tank with a special liner in it.

SCHAPER: Some stations can convert existing tanks and pumps, like those from premium unleaded, at a much lower cost. And a new tax credit of up to $30,000 can help owners recoup some of their investment. Before that was available, the Illinois Corn Growers Association subsidized most of Pickerel's costs.

But even those who want to sell E85 face problems just getting it to the pump, because there isn't a distribution system in place for ethanol like there is for regular gasoline.

Mr. BILL PAULSON (General Manager for South Dakota-based Heartland Grain Fuels): Petroleum products utilize pipelines that move from the coasts of the country to the heart.

SCHAPER: Bill Paulson is General Manager for South Dakota-based Heartland Grain Fuels, a producer of ethanol.

Mr. PAULSON: Where ethanol's produced in the heart, it moves against that flow.

SCHAPER: Another problem is that unlike oil-based gasoline, ethanol absorbs water along the way. And it cleans as it flows, bringing with it all the gunky dirt and residue inside the pipeline.

Mr. PAULSON: So it uses either barge traffic to get there, or it'll use trains or trucks.

SCHAPER: Most of the ethanol being shipped doesn't even go into E85 pumps anyway. Last year's energy bill increasingly requires a ten percent mix of ethanol in regular gasoline. Those struggling suppliers are keeping up with that increased demand, and scores of new ethanol plants are being planned or built as those kinks in the distribution system are being worked out.

Michelle Kautz, of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, says these are heady days for those in the ethanol industry.

Ms. MICHELLE KAUTZ (Director of Communications, National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition): It's been absolutely unbelievable. Last year I looked at a 500,000 month website hit. This month we're looking at almost 28 million.

SCHAPER: Kautz says gas station owners are noticing that increased interest too. Since the start of last year, the number of stations selling E85 has nearly tripled, from 250 to more than 700 today. And she expects several hundred more E85 stations by the end of this year.

Still, that's hardly a noticeable fraction of the 170,000 regular gas stations in this country that still don't sell E85 fuel.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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