Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today announced a new program to help fund the installation of 10,000 ethanol “blender pumps” within the next 5 years. The pumps are capable of distributing varying gasoline-ethanol mixes, ranging from a newly-approved E15 blend to E85, which is an 85-percent mix usable only in flex-fuel vehicles.
Under the terms of the program, commercial and private gas-ethanol blender pumps will be eligible for a grant representing as much as 25 percent of their total cost, which the USDA says usually runs around $120,000. Exactly how much money will be offered per-applicant and how many pumps will be funded has not yet been decided, but as much as $200 million will be available over the next three years for such projects under the agency’s Rural Energy for America Program.
The pumps would greatly boost the availability of E85, which is currently sold at less than 2 percent of U.S. filling stations. American automakers have pledged to include flex-fuel capability in 50 percent of the cars they sell, beginning with the 2012 model year. A new Senate bill seeks to increase that number to 90 percent by 2016.
But with less than 2,400 gas stations offering E85, few drivers are likely to be able to initially take advantage of the relatively inexpensive upgrades OEMs are giving their vehicles in order to make them flex-fuel capable. Even with 10,000 new flex-fuel pumps available, the level of E85-friendly gas stations in the United States would increase to just 7 percent. The fact that—when adjusted for energy concentration—E85 is currently more expensive than regular gasoline, isn’t likely to help the fuel’s market viability much either.
The new pumps will also dispense E15, which was recently approved by the EPA and should begin showing up at filling stations this summer. The EPA is expected to issue a final rule on labeling for the new blend soon, allowing for it to be sold alongside other mixes despite its potential to damage older engines and gas-powered machinery. It’s unknown how many gas stations will initially carry E15, since many existing gas dispensers aren’t able to handle the 50-percent higher mix of ethanol and will need to be updated or replaced by blending pumps like those funded under the new USDA program.