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Willmar becomes the first outstate community in Minn. to offer E15 as part of a service station’s lineup of fuels

Jeff Armstrong, with Walt’s Service Center in Willmar, has been filling up vehicles with E15 since the station added it to its lineup of fuel choices with the installation of new pumps last month. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

WILLMAR — Most big changes in the marketplace start small, like when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the first personal computer in 1976.

Willmar might be a starting point for the next big change, if the hopes of the state’s ethanol industry are realized.

“We view, given the engines that are on the streets today, E15 really is the next, new regular,’’ said Tim Rudnicki, executive director of the Minnesota Biofuels Association.

Willmar became the first outstate community in Minnesota to offer E15 as part of a service station’s line-up of fuels just last month, according to the American Lung Association in Minnesota. Walt’s on First Avenue South made the blend a part of its lineup when it installed new pumps.

 The station is not selling E15 at the kind of pace that Apple enjoys with its products today, according to Jeff Armstrong, a manager and co-owner at the business.

“It’s like anything new,’’ said Armstrong. “A lot of people don’t know about it yet.’’

E15 is a 15 percent blend of fuel alcohol to gasoline, as compared to the 10 percent blend that is mandated and sold as regular at pumps today.

Seventeen months ago, the federal government formally approved the sale of E15 to motor vehicles manufactured in 2001 and later. That means 8 out of 10 vehicles on the road can legally use the blend.

Ever since the introduction of E85 for flexible-fuel vehicles, the ethanol industry has been working to expand its market beyond the 10 percent blending requirement.

Consumer interest in E85 was slow to start, but the higher blend has established its place in the market today. The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson was an early promoter of the blend. It made E85 available at the Cenex station in Benson in 2000, when only 33 flexible-fuel vehicles were registered in the entire community.

Mike Jerke, general manager of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, said the local region saw “solid demand’’ for the E85 blend through this past summer.

 Its sales have everything to do with price.

“I think the consumer interest is directly proportional to the price differential they see between the product and the regular 10 percent product,’’ said Jerke.

E15 was selling for $2.95 on Monday at Walt’s. It is priced at 10 cents below the price of regular 10 percent blend fuel, said Armstrong.

That should make the E15 fuel a very attractive buy, since it also comes with an 88 octane rating, as compared to 87 for the regular blend. Rudnicki said the higher octane means E15 performs better in modern engines than a regular, lower-octane blend, while emitting fewer pollutants.

He also points out that using E15 keeps more money at home. Filling up with E15 means using 5 percent less in petroleum, and it means supporting a bio-fuel raised and processed in Minnesota instead of a fossil fuel imported from outside the state.

Armstrong said most customers probably do not weigh all of these big picture issues when they drive up to the pump. Many do take advantage of the micro-processing capacity utilized by Jobs and Wozniak and now in their smartphones. They can instantly make the calculation between price per gallon and miles for gallon to know their best fuel buy at the pump.

Armstrong said he has been running his 2006 model Chevrolet pickup exclusively on E15 since its arrival. He has seen no drop in gas mileage while pocketing 10 cents per gallon in savings.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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