In Chicago last month I bought a used car, and, because the tank was nearly empty, filled it with gasoline. Next to the regular, mid-grade, and premium pump nozzles was another option, labelled “E85.” Although it had been a while since I had pumped gas into a motor vehicle, the availability of E85 — 85 per cent ethanol fuel blended with 15 per cent gasoline — left me unsurprised. In recent years I had, in my voracious daily readings, read many times about flex-fuel vehicles and 85 per cent ethanol gas. This is, I thought, 2006; cars are running on ethanol now. Flex-fuel sensors, which allow a vehicle to use E85, straight unleaded gasoline, or any combination of the two, are standard equipment on many new cars.
Through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, E85 was offered at every gas station at which I filled. Back in Winnipeg, however, I rolled up to a pump and wondered: Where’s the E85?
If you’re driving a provincial or federal government fleet vehicle, the E85 is at Notre Dame and Dublin, where a filling station was opened just this March. If, however, you’re driving your own private vehicle, you’ll have to distill your own, as some Midwestern motorists are doing. E85 is not commercially available in Manitoba.
Why would a supply line that’s consistent throughout the Midwestern U.S. suddenly halt at the border?
Most Manitobans are familiar with E10 gasohol, a 10 per cent ethanol/gasoline blend manufactured and marketed at Mohawk gas stations. Mohawk, which has since been acquired by Husky Energy Inc., began producing ethanol at its Minnedosa plant in 1981. While current capacity is 10 million litres annually, look for a 13-fold increase in production in mid-2007 when the new Minnedosa plant now under construction comes online. But don’t look for E85. According to Husky vice-president Vince Chin, the company has no plans to commercially market E85 in 2007. The production increase is rather to satisfy the provincial government’s mandate that gasoline sold in the province contain 10 per cent ethanol.
Chin says the commercial availability of E85 is “contingent upon a number of things. It’s like a chicken-and-egg effect.” You need, he says, the demand before there’s the availability, and the availability before there’s the demand. But many cars sold in Manitoba since 2001 are already flex-fuel capable, even if their owners don’t yet know it, and cheap, after-market kits are now available to convert many late-model vehicles to E85 readiness.
Jared Carlberg, a University of Manitoba agribusiness professor, doesn’t know where the E85 is either. In fact, he was surprised when I revealed to him the extent of E85’s availability in the Midwestern states.
“The buck kind of stops at the Canadian border,” he said. “It’s not really clear why.”
“At 75 bucks a barrel it makes a lot more sense to start investigating these non-traditional fuels.”
Other countries are doing it. E85 is widely available in Sweden, and in Brazil “total flex” vehicles can use 100 per cent ethanol, readily available at the pump, or any proportion of ethanol mixed with gasoline.
Finally, I spoke to Shaun Loney, director of energy policy for the Manitoba government.
“You’ll have a difficult time,” he said, “finding E85 anywhere in Canada, for the simple reason that the federal government hasn’t stepped up to the plate yet.” Whereas the U.S. federal government offers generous incentives for the ethanol industry, Canada’s incentives fail to match even those given to the oil and gas industry.
Rest assured, however, that E85 is coming. According to Loney, ethanol distillation, which in Manitoba currently comes from wheat (and in the U.S. comes primarily from corn), is moving to straw cellulose, which produces proportionately more ethanol. And as a by-product of producing ethanol from wheat, you get distiller’s grain, a high-protein livestock feed that comprises up to 35 per cent of revenues from ethanol production.
“Not only is this a homegrown solution to energy security,” said Loney, “it’s an important part of our overall economic development strategy.”
Which makes good sense for Manitoba, as the agricultural industry becomes, in one sense, a fuel industry. Archer Daniels Midland, the “supermarket to the world,” is fast becoming known as “the Exxon of corn” now that it is the largest producer of ethanol in the U.S. In the last year, ADM’s share price has more than doubled. As Manitoba wheat makes a big comeback, the answer to “Where’s the E85?” could soon be “Everywhere.”