Ethanol fuel, E85, has arrived in the Tri-Cities.
What’s more, it is selling for less than $3 a gallon at two locations in Sullivan County, below the price of regular gasoline.
The E85 fuel, which is between 70 percent and 85 percent ethanol and the balance petroleum gasoline, is already available in Kingsport and the Piney Flats community near Johnson City.
The E85 is selling for less than regular gasoline and increases horsepower, but it also decreases mileage and is to be used only in designated flex-fuel vehicles.
Blountville-based Appalachian Oil Co., which operates APPCO retailers, began selling E85 at its Piney Flats location on March 3.
Mountain Empire Oil Co., based in Johnson City, started selling E85 at its Roadrunner Market at 2000 N. Eastman Road, Kingsport, on March 28 but didn’t put in a signboard for it until Friday morning.
“There’s a lot of cars out there that have E85 potential, but they didn’t have anywhere to buy it,” John Kelly, chief operating officer for Mountain Empire, said at the Eastman Road location Friday morning. “This is kind of our test site. It all comes down to consumer demand.”
The Roadrunner Market is offering a list of vehicles that will run on E85 and distributing a brochure on the product. The company is also running newspaper ads to help educate the public about the fuel.
About two months ago, Roadrunner Markets began selling E10, which is 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline and can burn in regular gasoline motors.
“I’m filling up today,” Shirley Harris, area operation manager for Mountain Empire, said of her 2006 Monte Carlo.
Kelly said the price of $2.969 a gallon is an introductory price that will remain for a while. As of Friday morning, regular gas there was $3.259 a gallon. Like gas prices, he said ethanol prices can change constantly.
Marty Anderson, president and CEO of the competing Appalachian Oil, said in a telephone interview earlier this week that APPCO got into the E85 sales because it expects demand to increase, to help the environment, and to lessen dependence on foreign oil.
Anderson said he’s aware of arguments that it takes more energy to produce ethanol from corn than it does to refine regular fuel.
But he said other studies have shown otherwise and that research into making ethanol and biodiesel from switchgrass might be a longer term solution.
Plus, flex-fuel vehicles can use regular gas when E85 is unavailable.
It also helps support the agricultural economy since it comes from a Tennessee supplier and is made in Tennessee, he said.
APPCO received four state grants through the Tennessee Department of Transportation to offset part of the price of converting pumps and tanks to E85. One was for Piney Flats. The second, for a Bristol, Tenn., facility, will open in 30 to 45 days, with ones in Erwin and Johnson City over the next 30 to 120 days.
Mountain Empire didn’t seek any grants but may in the future, Kelly said. And Anderson said that within 30 days, APPCO plans to initiate E85 service with no grant assistance in six to 12 locations throughout Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Kentucky.
Jonathan Overly, executive director of the Knoxville-based Clean Fuels Coalition, said $60,000 in separate grant money is available for E85 and B20 biodiesel retail sales through the coalition and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
“We made a decision to market E85 first, then the grant process came later,” Anderson said. “We just feel like there’s a demand for it, and it’s a good product.”
Overly said the TDOT grants will pay 80 percent of the start-up costs to sell E85, up to $45,000, with the retailer paying the other 20 percent. However, the retailer must commit to selling E85 for four years as long as it is reasonably available.
Anderson said demand at the Piney Flats location increases weekly, based on a signboard, banners and one television news report.
“There’s an education curve there,” Anderson said.
First, he said customers must know that the fuel is available, whether they can use it in their vehicles, the mileage and the cost.
“We’re the first in Northeast Tennessee to have it available.”
Anderson said it was easier for APPCO to offer it because all APPCO gasoline already is 10 percent ethanol.
“We do have an ethanol supplier,” Anderson said. “We’ve been doing E10 — 10 percent for years — so we’ve always had a supply.”
The E85 in Piney Flats Friday morning was selling for $2.899 per gallon compared to $3.219 regular. Anderson said he keeps E85 at 10 percent below the cost of regular gas.
He said General Motors studies show that depending on driving habits, E85 will result in fuel mileage 5 percent to 10 percent less than regular gasoline. He said more aggressive driving results in lower mileage.
Overly, however, said that E85 “usually” results in “a 20 to 25 percent loss in fuel economy.”
General Motors research also found that another benefit of E85 is an increase in horsepower of up to 10 percent, Anderson said.
As for vehicle compatibility with E85, Overly said vehicle owners can check their fuel doors to see if they have a flex-fuel vehicle, then to be sure check the owners manual or search online at www.E85fuel.com with a vehicle identification number to be sure a vehicle is flex-fuel.
Overly said some people may try to use E85 in vehicles not intended for it or try to customize their engines’ fuel systems. But people do so at their own peril and risk engine damage and voided warranties.
Most flex-fuel vehicles are 1995 or newer, but he said the VIN or vehicle identification numbers can be searched online to determine whether a vehicle is flex-fuel.
On the Net: www.etcfc.org, www.meoc.com, www.goappco.com.