Trying to Blend In

E15, higher grades of ethanol fight for a right to exist at the pump.

By
Erik J. Martin, CSP Correspondent

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Corny as it may sound, ethanol is like the little engine fuel that could. Admirably, it continues to chug, chug, chug its way toward the top of the hill as a major biofuel.

But for retailers looking to get behind the wheel and implement a wider variety of ethanol blends at their stations, there are plenty of roadblocks, from concerns about rising prices to a lack of infrastruc­ture and fears about misfueling lawsuits.

And yet there’s more than a kernel of truth to the idea that ethanol can be a viable and increasingly important alter­native fuel that benefits consumers and helps our nation achieve greater energy independence.

A recent study by the Center for Agri­culture and Rural Development found that national average gasoline prices decreased by $1.09 per gallon in 2011, due in part to the use of 13.9 billion gallons of etha­nol in the United States. Understood in a broader context, thanks in part to ethanol use, net imports of petroleum and crude oil diminished to approximately 45% of demand vs. 60% in 2005, as reported by Renewable Fuels Association president Bob Dineen during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing in July.

But the prevailing question remains: Can carrying higher-grade ethanol pay off for convenience retailers, especially those outside of the Midwest?

Consider that the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC), which pro­vided a 45-cent credit to fuel marketers and blenders for each gallon of pure etha­nol blended into gasoline, expired Jan. 1. Furthermore, production of ethanol is currently decelerating as manufac­turers face the challenge of record low profit margins. Case in point: In June, two major ethanol plants in Nebraska— Nedak Ethanol and Valero Energy—tem­porarily shut down, while production has stalled at a number of other ethanol mills.

Additionally, per a report from com­modities information provider Platts, ethanol profit margins in June were -17%, the lowest level since reporting started in 2005. The average price per gallon of ethanol in June dropped to $2 a gallon, but prices ballooned to $2.54 a gallon in July. Experts blame the increase on the dry, hot summer in the nation’s Corn Belt as well as production closures, which led to higher corn prices.

Gasoline prices, meanwhile, have fallen off. As a result, the lucky break that ethanol retailers enjoyed in the first half of 2012 (high gas prices and low ethanol prices, despite the demise of VEETC) appears to be ending.

Dollars and Sense

Today, ethanol prices are all over the map, says Dan Gilligan, president of the Petro­leum Marketers Association of America (PMAA), Arlington, Va. Gilligan believes that ethanol prices are likely to be on the upswing in the second half of 2012, due to factors such as the nationwide drought, which will put upward pressure on prices.

“However, it looks like the economy is slowing down again, which means that demand will slow for all fuels,” says Gil­ligan. “So we could actually see too much production of ethanol and not enough demand, which could put downward pressure on prices. It will be very tough on ethanol producers if demand falls and production costs go up.”

Retailers, of course, prefer low-priced ethanol, because sales increase when prices fall, Gilligan says.

“E10 blend sales have consistently grown at our stores,” says Matt Bjornson, partner in Bjornson Oil Co. Inc., Cava­lier, N.D., which has sold E85 at one of its three sites for nearly two years. “We offer some type of ethanol blend at every one of the fueling positions at our stores. It’s the largest seller.”

Can E85 Stay Alive?

Today, about 2,500 gas stations are invested in E85. And many stations, espe­cially throughout the Corn Belt, offer blends such as E20, E30 and E40. But while E85 sales have risen from approxi­mately 53 million to 99 million gallons since 2005, E85’s market share constitutes less than one-tenth of 1% of gasoline sold in the United States.

“For E85 to survive, ethanol needs to be a good 30% below gasoline to be com­ petitive,” says Gilligan, citing that E85’s fuel efficiency is around 20% to 30% lower than regular gasoline. “Retailers see that play out at the pump. Customers are pretty good at figuring out where the ethanol price stands in relation to gas, and they’ll quit buying [E85] when it gets above that 30% threshold.”

Yet as long as the price spread between ethanol and gas remains favorable, sup­pliers will benefit, says Gilligan.

“I’ve had some retailers tell me they’ve had tremendous success with E85, as well as others who have told me of terrible losses with E85,” says John Eichberger, vice president of government relations for Alexandria, Va.-based NACS, a Coali­tion for E85 member. “Success or failure depends on various factors, from existing market conditions to the customer base they’re servicing to the cost to invest in the necessary equipment.”

Matt Horton, CEO of Propel Fuels, Redwood City, Calif., a co-founding company of the Coalition for E85, says high ethanol prices combined with fall­ing gas prices have made the economics of E85 more difficult today than several months ago.

“We believe that ethanol prices will remain relatively high in the near term. Market conditions will be particularly difficult for smaller E85 retailers who don’t have a sophisticated ethanol sup­ply chain,” Horton says. “But when we’ve seen the price of E85 increase relative to gasoline, thousands of loyal customers, including many fleets, have continued to buy E85. Customers tell us it feels good to make a choice that supports the Ameri­can economy and energy independence while protecting our environment.”

For those retailers who have already invested in committed E85 infrastructure, including Bjornson, “we’re in it for the long haul,” he says. “E85 is a viable fuel option if the discount to regular gasoline is in that 25% to 30% range.”

E15 Enters the Scene

Higher-blend ethanol: It’s not just for flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) anymore. Introducing E15, America’s newest alternative fuel, has sparked its share of controversy since the EPA gave final approval in June for its sale and use in light-duty vehicles manufac­tured since 2001. That’s because many retailers are concerned that using gasoline with more than a 10% ethanol blend could damage non-FFV engines and violate auto manufacturer warranties.

In July, Scott Zaremba’s Zarco 66 gas station in Lawrence, Kan., became the nation’s first retailer to sell E15. Zaremba, who uses blender pumps to blend fuel options right at the station, offers 14 E15 fueling positions and, at the time of this interview, was selling E15 for 2 cents below E10, at $3.27 per gallon.

Unlike many other retailers who are nervous about liability risks of selling E15, Zaremba believes he has all his bases covered.

“We’ve done everything in accordance with the regulatory agencies, including proper labeling on the dispenser, reg­istration with the EPA as a blender of the product, and being registered with a third-party fuel tester,” says Zaremba, who is also vice president of the Petro­leum Marketers of Kansas.

Gilligan, however, expresses doubts about gas stations gravitating to E15 en masse anytime soon. “When many car makers are saying, ‘Do not put E15 into this car,’ it puts retailers in a really difficult situation. If more than 500 of the 160,000 gas stations in the U.S. offer E15 in the next five years, I’ll be very surprised,” says Gilligan, who points out that 100,000 sta­ tions operate on a two-tank system that makes it cost-prohibitive to incorporate E15. “The major oil companies are not likely to allow their branded retailers to eliminate E10 or premium, so you’re tak­ing 100,000 stations out of the potential market unless they want to add an extra tank and dispenser [for E15].”

Eichberger agrees that E15 will be a hard sell for retailers to adopt.

“Ask yourself as a retailer, ‘Do I sell a product that’s only approved for a certain class of customers?’ They’re being told not to use it by the manufacturer, which limits your potential demand,” he says. “You may be able to sell it at a lower price point, but that may encourage custom­ers who are not driving suitable engines to use the fuel to save a few pennies per gallon. Does that expose you to liabil­ity? Under the Clean Air Act, the retailer could be held responsible even if he fol­lows all EPA requirements for labeling.”

Zaremba, meanwhile, says he’ll con­tinue full speed ahead with E15, which he plans to roll out at other Zarco 66 stations. “Some automakers have said that you can’t use [E15] in their vehicles,” says Zaremba. “But my stance is, if it’s a 2001 or newer vehicle, [E15] is approved transportation energy for those vehicles.”

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