CSP Fuel: Ethanol's Upward Climb

E15 gains traction as more retailers sign on to sell it

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

Ever since 2011, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave its qualified blessing to E15, it has been a tough, upward slog for the ethanol blend to make headway in the nation’s fueling infrastructure.

Since that time, more than 100 fueling stations in 16 states have begun selling the 15% ethanol/85% gasoline blend (out of more than 150,000 U.S. gas stations). At first, many of these sites were small retailers with a business case for biofuels.

But in the past year, several large retail chains have signed on to sell E15:

Traction seems to be building for E15, despite opposition from a range of anti-ethanol industry groups; the threat of a downsized blending mandate in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS); and lingering liability concerns among retailers and trade groups.

So what happened in the past few years? Nothing—and that’s the point, say proponents of E15, who describe it as “the most tested” motor fuel in the United States. And now that some of the industry’s largest and most respected retailers have entered the E15 business, there is nowhere to go but up.

In 2014, the Minnesota Service Station & Convenience Store Association (MSSA), Little Canada, Minn., introduced the Minnoco fuel brand. The goal of the product’s creation, says executive director Lance Klatt, was independence from the perceived burdens of a major-oil branded contract: long terms, imaging constraints and a lack of community among dealers.

“It’s for retailers looking to still have their own brand and be able to control it and do things as a community—basically have independence,” he says.

Part of that independence means being able to sell higher ethanol blends such as E15. By June, Minnoco plans to have 24 branded sites, 20 of which will sell E15.

What’s preventing even faster growth? First, says Klatt, is retailers not understanding the basics of the E15 offer—specifically, it must be blended on site—and second, the cost of installing the infrastructure. Putting in a blender pump with underground piping can range from $150,000 to $180,000, although many states and biofuel groups offer grants to help trim this cost.

Klatt does not see consumer acceptance as a limiting factor. The EPA has approved E15 for use in vehicle model years 2001 and newer—approximately 60% of the U.S. vehicle fleet, or 130 million light-duty cars and trucks, according the U.S. Department of Energy. Older vehicles and small-engine, gasoline-powered vehicles—motorcycles, lawnmowers, boat engines—cannot use the fuel, which has stoked misfueling fears among some retailers and industry groups.

Customer education is key to selling E15; Klatt encourages retailers to chat with customers at the pump and provide information explaining the fuel’s restrictions and opportunity—i.e., the lower price. Minnoco

retailers have been selling E15 at a 5- to 10-cents-per-gallon (CPG) spread vs. E10 while still protecting their margin, he says.

Beyond the idea that it gives retailers another fuel option, proponents say E15 is a way for the country to avoid hitting the “blend wall”—the highest percentage of ethanol that the nation’s gasoline supply can absorb, recognizing both slacking demand and higher blends’ ability to safely fuel the vehicle fleet.

Within the first 15 weeks that Minnoco-branded retailers offered the fuel, E15 came to represent 20% of total gasoline sales, says Klatt. He urges policymakers, specifically those hoping to lower or abolish biofuel blending levels in the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014 and beyond, to give the infrastructure time to roll out E15.

“When you look at volume being 20% E15, that’s good movement on the scale,” he says. “Imagine if ... everyone put this infrastructure in. That’s 20% of overall fuel in the country is E15. [If] you move that needle 5%, what does that do to the overall RFS?”

While infrastructure for ethanol blends has traditionally sprouted at the source—near ethanol refineries

in corn-belt states such as Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska—one supplier is pushing for its expansion in one of the most vibrant U.S. markets: the Southeast.

Protec Fuel Management LLC, Boca Raton, Fla., is a provider of turnkey ethanol infrastructure services that established itself nearly a decade ago in the E85 business. Today it supplies 275 locations throughout the South and Southeast. More recently, it turned its sights to E15, with a goal of opening 28 sites in partnership with retailers in major markets by the end of first-quarter 2015. These include Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, and the states of Florida and Virginia. As of press time, it had opened five.

On its face, this is not an easy endeavor, considering supply constraints for the Southeast. There is only one refinery in the region (in Georgia). In most states, ethanol must be delivered by rail. For Protec, jump-starting the E15 infrastructure meant returning to many of its first E85 customers to gauge interest. Since then, it has opened the opportunity to any Southeast retailer.

“As we started to make more announcements of stations opening, that had definitely driven interest at the end of the fourth quarter on E15,” says Garner. “Now more people are calling us, asking what they have to do, and can they do it?”

The “how” is an important piece of E15; this is because it cannot be blended at the terminal but instead must be blended on-site with a mix of E85 and E10. Thus, any retailer that sells E15 must also have E85 available.

“If someone already has E85, it’s a very simple process to convert over and blend,” he says. “If you don’t, it’s back to our original turnkey model of now you’re going to have two products to sell: E85, and then blend up to E15.”

Of the retailers that have already installed E15, about half already were selling E85. However, most of Protec’s new E15 sites in Atlanta were brand new, meaning they did not already offer E85.

CONTINUED: The Desire to Differentiate