Motorists increasingly are using fuel mixes with higher ethanol levels, a trend that is attracting the attention of retailers and farmers alike.
However, regulatory quirks could slow the use of the product this summer.
A recent report by Growth Energy, a group representing ethanol producers and supporters, said U.S. drivers have logged 1 billion miles using E15, a blend that uses 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.
Changing habits among motorists have fueled a recent uptick in the number of retailers offering the higher ethanol blends.
Kwik Star announced last month that it has added E15 to 17 of its Iowa locations.
A press release issued by Kwik Trip, which operates in Iowa under the name Kwik Star, said the company intends to add E15 to almost all of its 550 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Casey’s General Store, meanwhile, announced plans to open 17 stations with E15 and E85 in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.
Monte Shaw, executive director of Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said the announcements underscore an encouraging trend.
“Over this last year, we have gone from very little access in northeast Iowa to E15 to pretty good access,” Shaw said. “It is still nowhere near where it needs to be, but at this time a year ago we had roughly 40 stations where you could buy E15 out of 2,300. … We now have 124, which is just over triple. It is still a small percentage, but it is a lot of growth.”
LES TO CLEAR
Shaw said motorists for a long time have used E10, a mixture that includes 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
The use of E10 reduces emissions of pollutants like carbon monoxide, exhaust hydrocarbons and fine particulates, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted a waiver for the use of E15 in October 2010. This waiver permitted use of the fuel blend for flexible fuel vehicles, cars and light pickup trucks with a date of 2007 or later.
Months later, this waiver was expanded to include all cars or light pickups from 2001 or later.
But Shaw expressed concern that use of E15 is being held back by what he calls “a regulatory quirk.”
He said the EPA regulates the vapor pressure of gasoline from June 1 through Sept. 15. During this stretch, fuel blends measuring above nine pounds per square inch cannot be used in cars and light pickup trucks, although they can be used in flexible-fuel vehicles, which Shaw estimated account for about 7 percent of vehicles on the road.
Shaw noted that E10 gasoline was granted a “one psi waiver” when it first came onto the market, which helped ensure that the blend measures below the nine psi requirement. E15 was granted no such waiver when it received federal approval and hovers just above the nine psi threshold.
These circumstances have created a situation in which E15 burns cleaner than E10 but is banned from use during the summer months. The situation also creates a conundrum: At the same time many area stations are rolling out E15 for the first time, motorists are being told not to use this fuel blend during the summer.
Realizing this quirk, multiple lawmakers have sought to address the issue, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
“The regulatory restriction on E15 doesn’t make sense. It harms energy security and consumer choice,” Grassley said in an email to the Telegraph Herald. “Consumers should have the ability to use E15 year-round. I’ll continue to work with my fellow senators to enact a statutory waiver for E15 to permanently solve this access problem.”
ERS REAP BENEFITS
E15 blends often are marketed under different names, Shaw said.
At Kwik Star, the “Unleaded 88” fuel contains 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.
Many local stations also offer E85, a mixture that contains more than 50 percent ethanol.
According to Shaw, this fuel only can be used in flexible-fuel vehicles, of which there are about 17 million in the U.S.
Whatever the name, the growing use of ethanol in fuel blends generally is seen as a positive for tri-state farmers.
Ethanol in the U.S. is commonly produced from corn that is used as a biomass.
Peter Winch, president of the Grant County (Wis.) Farm Bureau, said greater demand for ethanol translates to a higher demand for local farmers’ crops.
“I think it is having a positive impact,” Winch said. “Having more ethanol produced that goes through fuel systems means that many more bushels of corn that there is a demand for. Everything that increases demand for corn helps out farmers.”
This could have a particularly positive impact for farmers in the tri-states.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa led the county in corn production in 2016. Illinois finished second and Wisconsin came in eighth.