Gas stations not pumped about E85

Posted March 25, 2008 5:59 p.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2008 6:09 p.m. EDT

— With gas prices at record levels, many drivers are searching for cheaper alternatives. But at least one option is hard to come by in the Triangle.

Only three stations in the region, including one in Durham, offer E85 in their pumps. The ethanol-based fuel works in so-called "flex-fuel" vehicles that run on E85 or straight gasoline.

Other states, such as South Carolina, have five times the number of stations with E85. Area retailers said it's expensive to put in the pumps – about $50,000 each, although federal grants and tax credits are available to help with the cost – and they're not sure there's enough demand to make it a good deal.

"It still gets down to whether you can sell it," said Haddon Clark, whose United Oil operates 75 Handy Hugo's gas stations in the Triangle. "I have friends who've done E85, and they don't seem as enthused as when they put it in."

Although E85 sells for about $2.99 a gallon, compared with about $3.26 a gallon for gas, vehicles that burn the blended fuel get about 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than if they used regular unleaded. Industry experts said that eliminates any savings at the pump for drivers.

For example, a Lincoln Navigator that gets 11 miles per gallon would spend $90.44 to drive a 242-mile trip using E85 at $2.99 per gallon. The same trip on gas costing $3.29 a gallon would cost $72. 38 for filling the tank.

But Dan Barutio, who already fills up with E85 at Cruizers on N.C. Highway 55 in Durham, said he expects demand for the fuel to soar along with gas prices.

"If the (E85) price comes down, you'll definitely see it," Barutio said.

Chris Cady, general manager of Crossroads Ford in Cary, said the dealership sells twice as many flex fuel F-150 pickup trucks as it does models that burn only gas. But that's only because Crossroads Ford orders twice as many, he said, noting "there's not a lot of consumer heat" for flex fuel vehicles.

In addition to Cruizers, Tommy's Crown on U.S. Highway 15/501 in Pinehurst and America's Fuel on Broad Street in Southern Pines offer E85.

"From an industry standpoint, we'll offer any product the motoring public accepts," said Gary Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Marketers Association.