Gas Price Spike Sparks Interest in Alternative Fuels
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Mondays, our business report focuses on technology, and today alternative fuels. Hurricane Katrina's effect on gas prices has renewed interest in fuels that are not made from petroleum. As NPR's Nell Boyce reports, some gas stations already sell an alternative fuel that millions of people can burn in their cars.
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NELL BOYCE reporting:
On a stretch of highway running through Annapolis, Maryland, a string of gas stations is offering regular unleaded at prices ranging from 3.39 to 3.59 a gallon. But if you come to the Citgo gas station and walk over to pump number 12, you can get fuel for a lot cheaper, just 2.24 a gallon. The pump is decorated with pictures of corn growing against a blue sky, and that's because it contains something called E85. That 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline, a combination that can be burned in many ordinary vehicles, about four million cars on the road today.
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BOYCE: The gas station's owner, Yan Kang(ph), says that sales of E85 have gone up dramatically in recent days.
So just on a usual day, you would sell about 20 gallons?
Mr. YAN KANG (Gas Station Owner): Oh, yeah, that's right, 20 gallons a day.
BOYCE: And so yesterday, you said you sold 300 gallons?
Mr. KANG: Yes, 300 gallons.
BOYCE: Already, about a third of the gasoline sold in this country contains a small amount of ethanol. All cars can burn that. But most cars can't handle fuel with ethanol levels as high as 85 percent. Robert McCormick is a researcher with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.
Mr. ROBERT McCORMICK (National Renewable Energy Laboratory): Ethanol at high levels is a little more corrosive to the materials that one might make a vehicle's fuel system out of.
BOYCE: So this means carmakers have to use more durable materials. And McCormick says ethanol burns differently than gasoline. E85 has more oxygen and a higher octane rating.
Mr. McCORMICK: The engine's control system has to know when you're running on E85 and when you're running on gasoline and when you're running on anything in between, and then change the spark timing control and the air-fuel ratio control to be appropriate for the fuel.
BOYCE: Many of today's computerized engines can do that. Ford Motor Company's Kelly Brown says that about a million Ford cars on the road today can take E85, and that includes some familiar lines, like the Ford Taurus and Explorer. But before you try to fill up with this stuff, you'd better check your owner's manual or look for a sticker on the door of your gas tank. Brown says companies don't make all cars compatible with E85 because it costs an extra $200 per car.
Mr. KELLY BROWN (Ford Motor Company): That's quite a bit of money in this competitive market.
BOYCE: And it's money that Ford and other carmakers are reluctant to spend. After all, only a few hundred gas stations offer E85. Most of them are in the Midwest where corn grows.
Even though E85 might be a dollar cheaper at the pump, the real savings may be smaller. Ethanol gets fewer miles to the gallon; plus, ethanol prices are going up. The country only has about 90 ethanol plants, and they're operating at their maximum capacity. Still, more than a dozen new plants are under construction, and the recent energy bill gives tax credits to gas stations that install E85 pumps. Robert White of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition says that as more E85 becomes available, consumers will respond.
Mr. ROBERT WHITE (National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition): We think as the people see the pricing, they understand the benefits of E85 above and beyond just savings at the pump, that they'll be looking for those vehicles when they go to trade or when they go to buy a new car.
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BOYCE: Back at the Citgo station in Annapolis, Yan Kang says he's worried that he's going to run out of E85, so he called his distributor in Illinois.
Mr. KANG: The company said they don't have it in stock.
BOYCE: And if they don't have it in stock, he's not sure where he can go to get more. Nell Boyce, NPR News.
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