Mass. still catching up to the alternative fuel revolution

Jon Chesto

Nearly 80,000 Massachusetts motorists drive cars that can run on fuel primarily derived from corn. But they would probably drain an entire tank just to reach the nearest station that sells the fuel, known as E85.

That's because there hasn't been one pump equipped to deliver E85 in all of New England. Until now.

Bay State drivers of “flexible-fuel” cars will get a local option to buy the fuel - which consists of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline - now that Dennis K. Burke Inc. is opening an E85 station in Chelsea. The company plans to hold an event on Thursday to mark the occasion.

While the Chelsea fuel company is the first to offer E85 in New England, it probably won't be the last. Plans are under way for a flex-fuel Gulf station at Logan Airport that would open this fall. And Gulf Oil officials are considering flex-fuel stations for rest areas on the Mass. Pike.

To say that New England is arriving late to this party is an understatement. Sure, E85 has been slow to catch on in areas outside the Corn Belt. But nearly every other state except those in New England have had some options for drivers of flex-fuel cars who want to try veggie power instead of regular gasoline.

Phil Lampert, executive director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, partly blames New England's distance from the Midwest states, where much of the country's corn is grown and about 90 percent of the nation's roughly 1,600 E85 stations are located.

Another key barrier was lifted last year when Congress passed its latest major energy bill. Lampert - whose group is based in Jefferson City, Mo. - says many of the retail stations in the Midwest are independent without any franchise connection that could prevent them from installing an E85 pump.

But East Coast station operators - most of whom are franchised - may see some changes because the 2007 law bans contracts with oil companies that restrict franchisees from selling E85.

Perhaps most importantly, E85 prices had not been significantly attractive compared with the cost of regular gas - until gas started topping off at four bucks a gallon.

Ed Burke, the chairman of Dennis K. Burke Inc., says he expects to sell E85 with at least a $1-per-gallon discount off the cost of regular gas. The discount, Burke says, would have been much steeper before corn prices soared in the past two weeks because of the flooding in the Midwest. Although ethanol is considered less efficient than regular gas, Burke says drivers of flex-fuel cars will still see some savings because of the high cost of gasoline.

The state's second E85 shop won't be far behind. Pat O'Connell, a vice president at Energy North Group in Tewksbury, says his firm is installing an ethanol pump as part of a major renovation of its station at Logan.

O'Connell says construction should start in July, and the airport station - which is changing from a Citgo flag to Gulf - should be ready to pump out E85 by sometime in September or October.

The first two E85 stations will be close to where much of Greater Boston's fuels arrive by sea. But you obviously won't see widespread use of E85 in this state until most motorists don't need to schlep over the Mystic River or under the Boston Harbor to fill up.

That's where Newton-based Gulf Oil could play a key role. The company, which already runs several E85 stations in New York, is considering opening E85 pumps at its stations along the Pike.

Gulf CEO Joe Petrowski says Gulf execs have been talking with managers of public and private sector fleets to line up long-term purchasing contracts that would make spending as much as $1 million to install six to eight pumps a less risky move.

Petrowski says he expects to make a decision within the next few months. If Petrowski can't line up committed buyers, he says such a big investment wouldn't be financially feasible without major subsidies from the state, like the ones in New York that helped pay for Gulf's E85 pumps there.

Ethanol fuel has come under fire for its reduced efficiency in the tank and the amount of energy used to produce it from corn harvests. It's also been partially blamed for the recent spike in food costs.

Still, it's a renewable fuel that's widely considered to be a cleaner-burning alternative to gasoline, including the E10 blend now used in this area. And an increased reliance on E85 would mean a decreased reliance on fuels from unstable parts of the world like, say, Iraq.

Many high-tech businesses in the state are already working on developing the next generation of ethanol-based fuel that would use materials from plants as varied as switchgrass, algae and cranberries instead of corn.

Legislative leaders on Beacon Hill are also putting the finishing touches on a bill that could help stimulate that market.

Hopefully, it won't take long for corn alternatives to become commercially viable. Massachusetts would be even further behind most other states without the E85 stations that are under way. Fortunately, we have a few companies here willing to prime the pump for the upcoming energy revolution.

Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at