Ethanol Industry Promoting Itself

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Despite being 47 cents cheaper than the least expensive grade of unleaded gas, the E85 pump at a Gas City station in Chicago sits largely ignored except for motorists who wonder exactly what it dispenses.

That's a situation proponents of ethanol-based alternative fuels like E85 want to change. And they figure current high gas prices are providing the ideal opportunity to take the offensive.

John Van Pelt, a consultant working on behalf of several private groups and state and federal government agencies to promote E85, said many people own ``flexible fuel'' vehicles that can use either the cleaner-burning alternative fuel or gasoline but are unaware of that capacity.

``We're having a difficult time getting the public educated about these vehicles,'' he said. ``They come from the factory that way. Generally, dealers don't even know about it.''

E85 contains 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. It currently is up to 50 cents cheaper per gallon than the reformulated gasoline used in many markets including Chicago — which currently boasts the nation's highest gas prices. The reformulated gas contains 10 percent ethanol as an additive to cut harmful emissions.

On Thursday, the Gas City station on Chicago's North Side was selling E85 for $1.76 and gas for $2.23. Jim Accalee, who was filling up with diesel, said even if his vehicle could use E85 he would hesitate to do so because he knows little about it.

``That might be why most people aren't buying it now,'' he added.

The Illinois Corn Growers Association, which promotes the use of corn-based ethanol products, estimates there are about 50,000 flexible fuel vehicles just in the Chicago area. Van Pelt said there's a simple way for anyone who wonders if their vehicle can use E85 to find out: check the owner's manual.

He said flexible fuel vehicles on the road include Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge minivans with a 3.3 liter V-6 engine made from 1998 to the present, Ford Ranger pickups with a 3 liter V-6 made from 1999 to the present and General Motors Chevy S-10 and Sonoma pickups with 4-cylinder engines starting with the 2000 model. Also, some Ford Taurus cars made between 1996 and 1999 are flexible fuel capable.

Ford spokesman Scott Jensen said flexible fuel vehicles use the same fuel system as regular cars and trucks, but some parts are made from more durable materials and the oxygen-to-fuel ratio is a little different. He said drivers using E85 might lose up to two miles per gallon in fuel efficiency but will see an improvement in horsepower.

``Essentially, the way these E85 vehicles are built is for them to be completely invisible to the customer,'' he said. ``Your everyday customer is not going to notice the difference.''

For now, many everyday customers are unable to try E85 even if their vehicles can use it. That's because only about 100 stations in the country — including about 10 in Chicago — sell the fuel.

Gas City Ltd. Vice President Paul Torstrick said his company began selling E85 to accommodate the U.S. Postal Service, which uses some flexible fuel vehicles. He said skyrocketing gas prices are stirring some interest among regular motorists with flexible fuel vehicles.

``I think as people see they have the ability to use E85, sales will pick up,'' he said.

Larry Cunningham, a senior vice president at ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland, said making E85 is as simple as pouring the liquids together. Nationally, he said, ethanol averages about $1.25 per gallon, or 40 cents less than the national average for a gallon of gasoline.

Cunningham said he believes E85 will always be competitively priced with — and hopefully cheaper than — gasoline, even if gas prices drop. He said the ethanol industry hopes that most vehicles will eventually roll off the production line with the flexible fuel option.

``I think the momentum is moving in that direction,'' he said.