Observer photo by Brendan McGarry
Sam Shanklin of Alexandria fills up his government-issued Lincoln Town Car, a flex-fuel vehicle, with E85, an ethanol-gas mix, at the Navy Citgo station at 801 South Joyce St. in Alexandria, Va. Shanklin is the driver for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. The station, one of the few publicly accessible E85 stations in the greater Washington metropolitan area, services much of the federal government’s fleet, which are required to run on alternative fuels under energy mandates.
Lack of availability, high cost keep area motorists away from E85
by BRENDAN McGARRY
Barbara Johnson is surprised at the number of calls she has received lately from people asking about ethanol. A dozen a day, at least.
Johnson manages the Navy Citgo station on South Joyce Street in Arlington. The station is one of just a handful in the greater Washington region that sells the public E85, an alternative fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Despite the inquiries, Johnson said typical drivers avoid ethanol, simply because of cost. On a recent weekday, a sign on the E85 pump read $2.75 a gallon. Across the asphalt, regular unleaded gas was selling for $2.14 a gallon. By comparison, in the Midwest — home of a booming ethanol industry — E85 fetches as little as $1.60 a gallon.
“Price has a lot to do with it,” Johnson said.
Only about 6 million vehicles — 2.5 percent of the U.S. automobile market — are considered “flexible fuel vehicles.” But carmakers such as General Motors, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler have pledged to increase those numbers.
President Bush is pushing for greater use of alternative fuels, including ethanol, as part of his proposal to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next decade. Yet owners of flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on gas or ethanol, would be hard pressed to find a single E85 pump in the District of Columbia.
The high cost of ethanol on the East Coast has discouraged local gas stations from carrying the corn-based fuel, heralded by some as the antidote for the country’s petroleum addiction. E85 is also highly corrosive and requires special storage tanks. Service stations have balked at paying extra to install new tanks or renovate exiting ones, and vendors have refused to offer a fuel they view as a competitor to gasoline.
Few E85 stations in the area
Ethanol is used at three government fueling stations in the District, but they are closed to the general public, according to an alternative fuel database maintained by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Citgo station in Arlington, Va., located at 801 South Joyce St. between the Pentagon and the new Air Force Memorial, is the closest publicly accessible E85 station — and the only one in the state of Virginia. A blue E85 sign on Columbia Pike advertises the fuel to passing motorists. Maryland sells ethanol to the public at three sites in the greater metropolitan area: Gaithersburg, Annapolis and Laurel.
These locations are among the 1,125 ethanol fueling stations nationwide, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of E85. That figure represents a near doubling in one year. Still, ethanol is sold at less than 1 percent of all gas stations in the United States. The vast majority of E85 stations are clustered around the Corn Belt in the Midwest.
“Demand fueled the installations,” said Michelle Kautz, a spokeswoman for the coalition. “Sure, many people want to buy it for the good of the country, to lower our dependence on foreign oil, but what most Americans look at first is their pocketbook.”
High prices on the coasts
Ethanol is more expensive on the corn-deficient coasts because the fuel has to be transported via truck and train from producers in the mid-West.
“Obviously, if you’re producing corn in a certain area, it costs less to ship that product to an ethanol plant nearby,” Kautz said.
More ethanol refineries and storage facilities in the mid-Atlantic region would mean less overall transportation costs, said Larry Boone, automotive manager for the Navy Exchange Command (NEX), which operates the Arlington Citgo station.
“Until the producers find a way to get the product in this market more cost efficiently, the cost of E85 will remain quite high,” he said.
Companies also recently began buying ethanol to use as a gasoline additive, driving the price up further, Boone said.
Map by Google Earth and U.S. Department of Energy
The yellow markers highlight publicly accessible ethanol stations in the greater Washington metropolitan area.
Ethanol has some inherent drawbacks. It isn’t as efficient as gasoline.
E85 costs about $1.45 and $1.65 a gallon to produce, and gets about 10 percent to 15 percent less mileage than gasoline. The government subsidizes the fuel to the tune of 50 cents a gallon to encourage its consumption.
Some economists have also raised alarm about corn-based ethanol’s demand on the corn supply. The price of corn has doubled to nearly $4 a bushel in the last six months, largely because of increasing demand related to alternative fuel production. The trend is expected to continue as the industry races to meet President Bush’s energy benchmarks.
Critics also question automakers’ commitment to the cause, saying they can easily skirt the rising fuel standards.
“Are we playing a game here, or are we really interested in getting a better fuel economy?” asked Paul Fiore, executive vice president of the Service Station Dealers of America/National Coalition of Petroleum Retailers and Allied Trades.
The problem for service stations selling ethanol is a “chicken-and-egg game,” Fiore said. “What comes first, the demand or the availability of the product?”
Because of its corrosive properties, ethanol can’t be stored in the same tanks as gasoline. In fact, regulators only recently crafted new certification requirements for the storage and distribution of E85. The cost of installing a single ethanol pump is estimated at between $50,000 and $100,000, Fiore said.
In the end, Fiore said, stations are beholden to the type of fuel distributed by their suppliers. “We’re at the bottom of the supply chain,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of control over the product we sell.”
Kautz, the spokeswoman for the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, said the oil industry has resisted efforts to bring E85 to consumers. “They’re in it to make money for their shareholders,” she said. “Renewables are a threat to them.”
Government workers, environmentalists fill up
The Citgo station began selling E85 and compressed natural gas, which typically fuels buses and larger vehicles, in February 2001. The vast majority of alternative fuel customers at the site — more than 90 percent — are government employees, fueling up cars and trucks with modified engines to meet requirements under the 1992 Energy Policy Act, Boone said. The legislation required the federal government to take the lead in introducing alternative fuels to the public.
A variety of local and federal agencies use the Arlington site. Indeed, the White House is the biggest customer, Boone said.
Similarly, municipal vehicles — police cruisers, transit buses, highway trucks — guzzle the most ethanol at the Montgomery County, Md., fleet management site in Gaithersburg, Equipment Services Manager Calvin Jones said.
In 2006, the county’s E85 pump — which, like the one in Arlington, is self-operated with a credit card reader — registered 658 public transactions, an average of about two a day. Those transactions amounted to about 8,000 gallons of the 43,000 gallons of ethanol consumed last year, or slightly less than one-fifth of total sales at the station.
Jones said most of these people use the site religiously because it’s the right thing to do, even though it means paying more than regular gas.
More ethanol on the way?
President Bush wants to use 35 billion gallons a year of alternative fuels by 2017. Current U.S. capacity for ethanol production is 5.6 billion.
As the industry debates whether it can be done, local officials are talking about building massive ethanol storage facilities in Virginia, along I-95 and I-64, in heavily trafficked corridors from Washington to Virginia Beach, Boone said. But such infrastructural upgrades are years away, he added.
Boone said he’s working on a plan to give Virginia three new public E85 fueling stations in Yorktown, Norfolk and Oceana. In Maryland, meanwhile, Jones said he’s teaming up with county officials to open a new ethanol station in Silver Spring.
Barbara Johnson, the Citgo manager in Arlington, said consumers should have more access to E85.
“There should be more stations, more refineries in this area, especially in the DC area,” she said. “We should be setting the example for the entire country.”