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Ethanol doesn't spark interest among consumers

Ethanol doesn't spark interest among consumersEthanol doesn't spark interest among consumers

Few consumers are familiar with E15 fuel. In fact, two thirds can't accurately describe the fuel and even fewer know whether it'd be a good deal, according to a new survey by the National Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing (NACS).

E15 is gasoline that consists of 15 percent ethanol, a corn by-product. Blending ethanol into gasoline reduces dependence on foreign oil, but it increases fuel consumption and not all cars are compatible with it.

To understand public perceptions and purchase intents, the industry trade group for gas station retailers conducted an online survey last month of almost 1,200 Americans who regularly fill up with gasoline. The NACS asked consumers about their fuel preferences and how likely they would be to consider buying a car that uses an alternative fuel, such as diesel or gasoline blended with ethanol. Not many were enthused about these alternatives.

Even when it came to an established fuel like diesel, among the 64 percent of respondents who were considering a new car, more than half said they consider the fuel too expensive. Thirty-one percent said they would consider a diesel-powered model. But of those would consider it, 59 percent gave better fuel economy as the reason. For those who weren't interested in diesel, the top reason was that diesel was more expensive.

Visit our guide to alternative fuels to learn more about ethanol, biodiesel, and other gasoline options.
When it came to ethanol blends, the picture got murkier.

Among those who said they were likely to buy E15 if it were the same price as E10, 46 percent cited better fuel economy as the motivation. However, E15 has worse fuel economy than E10 or lower gasoline blends.

Currently, almost all gasoline sold in the United States is blended with 10 percent ethanol. Twelve percent of 2013 models are flex-fuel vehicles designed to use ethanol blends up to 85 percent.

Looking to reduce the dependency on imported oil, the federal government has programs in place to encourage more ethanol, both through incentives for automakers to build more flex-fuel vehicles and by requiring that gasoline be blended with biofuels (the Renewable Fuel Standard). Although it's not yet on the market in significant quantities, the EPA has approved the sale of a new ethanol blend known as E15. (As the name suggests, E15 has a greater percentage of ethanol than the now-common E10.) But E15 is not approved for vehicles before the 2001 model year, and many survey respondents who have older cars were not aware of the risks of using E15 in older vehicles.

But ethanol fuel is lost on consumers, according to the NACS survey. Only 26 percent of consumers said they were very or somewhat familiar with E15. When asked to identify what E15 is, less than a third identified it correctly as a blend of 15 percent ethanol with 85 percent gasoline. Others reversed the blend or said it was a fuel designed to give engines 15 percent more horsepower or fuel economy. A full 54 percent simply said they didn't know.

When asked if they would buy E15, 59 percent said they would if it were the same price as gasoline. Others said they were concerned about damage to their cars and decreased fuel efficiency--concerns that have also been expressed by automakers.

Some survey respondents said they wouldn't buy E15 because automakers have not authorized it for use in their cars. The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that all cars built since 2011 be designed to use the fuel and has approved it for use in vehicles dating back to 2001. Automakers have taken issue with its use in these older models, however.

Survey respondents were asked how they would like E15 pumps to be identified to differentiate them from normal gasoline pumps. More than half (56 percent) wanted a label on the dispenser, as EPA has specified. Others wanted a separate color for the nozzle, a completely separate pump, or an electronic disclaimer screen before the pump would turn on.

Some consumers (29 percent) self-reported that they are very familiar or somewhat familiar with E85, a fuel containing 85 percent ethanol and allowed only in cars and trucks designated as flex-fuel vehicles.

The survey asked consumers at what price they would consider buying E85 for use in an FFV. If E85 cost 60 cents less than gasoline per gallon, the majority of consumers (61 percent) said they would consider buying a flex-fuel vehicle that could use it. At today's gas prices, however, E85 would have to cost at least $1.02 per gallon less than gasoline to make up the shortfall we measured in fuel economy. Consumer Reports tested E85 and determined that flex-fuel vehicles (FFV) running on it get 27 percent fewer miles per gallon than they do running on ordinary gasoline. So, even if the fuel cost less to purchase, that wouldn't compensate for the decreased cruising range.

Among consumers who report owning a flex-fuel vehicle, 70 percent said E85 is available at some stations where they already buy gas and 60 percent buy it. A significant 81 percent said they would be more likely to buy E85 if it were available at more stations.

This survey shows that there are real obstacles to consumers adopting higher ethanol blends or diesel, including valid concerns and lack of knowledge.

EPA issues final approval for sale of E15 ethanol fuel
The great ethanol debate
Warranties void on cars burning E15, say automakers

—Eric Evarts

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