March 20, 2023

As E85 stations increase, flex-fuel vehicle offerings decline

ELLISVILLE, Mo. — If you plan to go shopping for a new flex-fuel vehicle, your choices may be limited. Very limited, in fact, to a single automaker.

While the number of gas stations across the country selling E85 have increased, the number of flex-fuel vehicles available to use that fuel has continued to decrease.

But if current owners of flex-fuel vehicles would increase their use of the renewable fuel, it would boost demand.

“If you have the flex-fuel vehicles that are on the roads today use E85 half the time, it is a monster number,” said Robert White, vice president of industry relations for the Renewable Fuels Association.

White spoke on April 13, just a day after President Joe Biden announced, at a POET ethanol plant in Menlo, Iowa, that he would allow temporary summer sales of E15 at fueling stations across the country.

“All the hard work paying off feels great, but there is still work to be done,” White said.

That work includes more efforts to make the year-round E15 sales permanent, as well as work to boost awareness of E85 and to reverse the downward trend in the manufacture of flex-fuel vehicles.

According to an annual RFA analysis of new model year automobiles, while almost 95% of model year 2022 vehicles are approved by their manufacturers to use E15, only Ford and GM are producing flex-fuel vehicles for model year 2022.

Only the Ford models are available for retail sales. The 2022 GM flex-fuel vehicle models are only available for fleet purchases.

That is a big decrease from model year 2015, which saw more than 80 different vehicle models from eight manufacturers being offered with a flex-fuel option.

Until 2015, automakers received an increase in their Corporate Average Fuel Economy credits for flex-fuel vehicles.

“If you were an automaker and you made a 20-mile-per-gallon Chevy Tahoe, you would get a multiplier effect if it was flex-fuel,” White said.

With then-President Barack Obama vowing to put more electric vehicles on the road, that multiplier effect shifted away from flex-fuel vehicles.

“As soon as the CAFE credits started shifting away, so did the automakers from producing those vehicles,” White said.

White said lawmakers have introduced bills that would give CAFE credits back to automakers for making flex-fuel vehicles, as well as bills that would give automakers flat payments for flex-fuel vehicles.

“I do think, if any of that gets passed, the automakers have said that would be enough,” White said.

In the meantime, White and the RFA continue to promote the use and sales of E85 into larger markets with larger numbers of flex-fuel vehicles. They also continue to promote increased use of E85 by all flex-fuel vehicle owners.

“What we always tell people is — it all adds up. Just in the ag community alone, if everyone was using E85, we could move some gallons pretty quick,” White said.

White produced numbers showing that if 22 million flex-fuel vehicles with a 25 mpg rating, traveling an average of 14,263 miles per year, used E85 100% of the time, that would result in about 12.6 billion gallons of E85 consumed per year.

With those same vehicles using E85 50% of the time, it would mean a disappearance of about 6.3 billion gallons of E85 annually.

White said he believes that E85 use can be increased. He pointed to the numbers of new E85 fueling stations being installed in larger metro and urban areas.

“What’s cool about where the stations are going now, for the most part, they are going into new communities, new cities, that have never had the fuel before,” he said.

“In the early days of E85 and ethanol, any station was a good station. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t our best approach. It should have been — where are the most vehicles? Where are the people who might be interested in this?

“And that’s what is happening today. Even people who have had flex-fuel vehicles for two years or five years, they may just now be seeing E85 for the first time and having the first opportunity to use that fuel.”

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor