Corn growers and independent gas stations are teaming up to bring the higher-ethanol fuel known as E15 to Minnesota drivers, putting themselves in conflict with the automotive and oil industries.
Penn Mobil in south Minneapolis is Minnesota's first station to offer the 15 percent ethanol fuel, the Star Tribune reported Tuesday. Some other stations are also planning to add the new blend. To make it attractive, Penn Mobil is selling E15 for 15 cents a gallon cheaper than E10, the standard 10 percent blend.
The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is chipping in $2 million and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture another $1 million over two years to subsidize the gas-pump upgrades needed to allow the stations to dispense E15. With 21 ethanol plants, Minnesota is one of the largest producers of the corn-based biofuel.
Most U.S. cars and trucks were designed for E10. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved E15 for 2001 and newer cars, SUVs and light trucks. But the auto industry doesn't endorse E15.
Ford and GM have approved E15, but only for more recent models. Pre-2001 vehicles, as well as motorcycles and various other engines, are not approved for E15 because of concerns about damage.
Some independent Minnesota station owners, led by Penn Mobil's Richard Bohnen, not only are adding E15, but they are cutting ties to major oil companies, which have fought the ethanol industry's efforts to substitute renewable fuels for petroleum fuels. At least four stations plan to rebrand under the name Minnoco, owned and controlled by station owners.
"The advantage is that you own your own brand," said Bohnen, founding president of Minnoco.
The ethanol industry is promoting higher-ethanol blends so its market doesn't max out at 10 percent of the nation's fuel supply — what the industry calls the "blend wall." While blends of up to 85 percent, or E85, can be used in flexible fuel cars, that market is limited. E15 is aimed at the 75 percent of car owners who drive 2001 or newer vehicles.
"It is a major market-share battle," said Mike O'Brien, a vice president at Growth Energy, an ethanol industry trade group.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers advises car owners to check their owners' manuals before using E15. For cars designed for E10, E15 carries "a strong possibility of corrosion over time," said Gloria Bergquist, a vice president of the group.
But O'Brien said 25 stations in eight states have sold 250,000 gallons of E15 over the past six months without one complaint.
Bohnen said typically E15 will be cheaper than standard fuels because wholesale ethanol usually is priced lower than gasoline.
The price was attractive to Heather Olson, who pulled up Monday in her 2012 Honda and selected E15, but only after Bohnen explained what it was.
"I didn't know anything about it," Olson said. "I will watch my gas mileage. Cheaper is always good."
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