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Discussions about benefits of corn-based alternative have yet to transfer into a major boost at the pump

WILLMAR -- Rapidly rising gasoline prices may be fueling lots of talk about the corn-based alternative E85, but that interest is not translating into any major boost in sales.

WILLMAR -- Rapidly rising gasoline prices may be fueling lots of talk about the corn-based alternative E85, but that interest is not translating into any major boost in sales.

Service station managers in the area report that demand at the pumps for E85 is growing only slowly if at all, and certainly not as rapidly as some would expect.

"It's always going up a little bit,'' said Conrad Bostron, manager of the Central Lakes Cooperative Cenex on U.S. Highway 12 in Willmar. He said the station has not seen any significant jump in E85 sales as gasoline prices have spiked in the last couple of weeks.

He also pointed out that sales of E85 have gone up significantly since the special E85 pumps were added at the station about five years ago. Sales have doubled in the last few years, he said.

Many E85 customers are attracted by the current 40-cents-per-gallon price difference between gas and E85 at stations in this area. However, customers also realize there is a decrease in miles-per-gallon with E85, and that is keeping some customers away, he said.

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Follow U.S. Highway 12 west to Benson where much of the area's ethanol is made and blended by the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, and the patterns of motorists remain similar.

E85 sales at the pumps in Benson have not really changed since the start of the year, reported Joel James, manager of the Glacial Plains Cooperative on Highway 12.

James looked back at the station's records and found that ethanol accounted for 7.7 percent of sales in January, 6.6 percent in February and 7.4 percent in March. So far this month ethanol accounts for 7 percent of sales.

The station manager can only speculate, but said it is possible that the potential E85 market in the Benson area is already close to being realized. Flexible fuel vehicles likely do not represent more than 7 percent of the vehicles on area roads, he noted.

He believes that E85 sales will increase as a greater percentage of flexible fuel vehicles reach our roads. Also, there remain flexible fuel vehicle owners who do not realize that their vehicles can use E85.

Awareness about flexible fuel vehicles and E85 should be greatest in agricultural communities, but that does not necessarily change buying patterns at the pumps. The recent spikes in gasoline prices have not boosted E85 sales at the Farmers Co-operative Oil Company in Renville, said Jim Miller, general manager.

"I haven't noticed any effect on that,'' he said.

Like elsewhere, Miller said E85 sales are slowly growing. Due to the price difference, he believes that there are motorists blending E85 with gasoline in cars that are not authorized for flexible fuel.

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He believes that E85 sales would grow if there were more economy and mid-sized cars equipped for flexible fuel use. It would also help if there were vehicle engines developed specifically for E85, he added.

The honors of being the first station in Minnesota to offer ethanol belongs to Honzay's Service Station in Olivia, where E85 pumps have long been a fixture as well. Here too the sales of E85 are growing only slowly. As gasoline prices have risen in recent weeks, there has been a "slight'' increase in the sales of E85, Nancy Schoon said. "It's starting,'' she said.

James said that he believes E85 can grow its market share best by keeping its price competitive. He saw sales at the Benson station leap when the difference between E85 and ethanol reached 70 cents one year ago.

He said the price difference will grow to 50 cents for Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company supplied stations in the area during May.

He is among many service station operators who would like to see more E85 sold. They pointed out that the farm-produced fuel offers advantages that go beyond the pumps. Ethanol sales benefit the local economy while reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

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