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Patriots Live

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3rd Qtr 5:05

Who Taught YOU to Drive?

E85, the cleaner-burning fuel for cars

A reader from Stoughton was suspicious: A gallon of gas for $3.20? There had to be a catch, he said, and suggested I investigate.

The station offering the amazing deal was the Route 138 South Gulf in Canton. 

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Station owner Brian Gillis picked up the phone when I called. The price was correct — but it wasn’t for gasoline. Gillis sells “E85,”  an ethanol-based alternative fuel that’s cheaper per gallon and cleaner-burning than standard gasoline, though less efficient.

“It will be three years November 1st since we revamped the gas station and added it,” Gillis told me. “Every year our sales have gone up.’’ He estimated that between 2010 and last year, sales doubled. “This year it’s maybe about 20 or 30 percent more.”

Its name describes what’s in it: 85 percent ethanol, made primarily from corn, and 15 percent gasoline. That’s pretty green. Standard gas has no more than 10 percent ethanol.

Mention E85, or the words “flexible fuel” (another name for E85), throughout much of the country and drivers will know exactly what you’re talking about. But not here. At the start of this year, Gillis was one of just four station owners in all of Massachusetts who sold E85.

Change is coming, though. Just prior to Labor Day, E85 pumps were added to Massachusetts Turnpike service plazas in Charlton (both sides) and Westborough. The state’s Department of Transportation says the plaza in Natick is slated to get E85 pumps as well, all part of the state’s push to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020.  

Two area gas stations, Magazine Shell in Cambridge and City Square Shell in Charlestown, also added E85 pumps this spring, according to Growth Energy, an ethanol industry trade group. More are likely on the way.

So what is there to know about E85? Will the car you drive run on it? Will it save you money? And why is it so hard to find?

We’ll start with that last question. E85 is rare in part because we don’t live in a major corn-producing region. Minnesota, which is a Corn Belt state,  leads the country with more than 2,500 flexible-fuel service stations, according to Growth Energy.

Other states also offer incentive and grant programs that help station owners finance the cost of installing separate E85 pumps and tanks. Those programs don’t exist here.

But with gas prices hovering around $4, car manufacturers are making more vehicles that can run on E85, which costs about 40 cents less per gallon than standard gas. General Motors says it’s the world’s biggest maker of flexible-fuel cars, having rolled out more than 7 million vehicles that can run on either gasoline or E85. (Gasoline-fueled cars need to be altered to handle the additional ethanol.)

There are perhaps 9 million flex-fuel vehicles on US roads, or about 3.5 percent of all vehicles, according to industry sources and the most recent federal statistics. In Massachusetts, more than 140,000 vehicles could run on either gasoline or E85, Growth Energy says. To find out whether your car is one of them, look at its gas cap: If it’s yellow, then your vehicle can accept E85.

In addition, flexible-fuel ­vehicles usually have badges on the body that read “FlexFuel” or “FFV,” or comparable wording on the gas-tank flap.

A number of websites list the makes and models that can run on flexible fuel, including vehicles built before yellow gas caps came into vogue in 2006. But I wouldn’t necessarily trust them. One site said my 2011 Chevy Equinox is a flexible-fuel vehicle; my dealer told me it’s not. When in doubt, rely on your owner’s manual.

So why use E85? If you are concerned about reducing carbon emissions, or lessening our dependency on crude oil, E85 is a better way to go. General Motors says your car will emit 21 percent less carbon dioxide when running on E85. The corn plants that are turned into ethanol also reduce atmospheric CO2 simply by growing.

“On a life-cycle analysis basis, corn-based ethanol production and use reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 52 percent compared to gasoline production and use,” says the US Department of Energy’s alternative fuels website.

E85, however, will not save you money, since a gallon of it doesn’t contain as much energy as a gallon of standard gasoline. The Department of Energy says to expect “about 25 to 30 percent fewer miles per gallon” when using E85, a pretty substantial drop off.

According to AAA of Southern New England, the average price of regular gasoline in Massachusetts was $3.88 last week. For E85 to save you money, it would have to cost, on the conservative side, at least 30 percent less than standard gas, or $2.71 a gallon. The price of E85 at the Westborough plaza was $3.45 on a recent visit.

But ethanol industry representatives say fuel economy on E85 won’t suffer as much as the federal government states, and a number of factors determine your actual miles per gallon.

Even if E85 isn’t a bargain right now, it could be down the road, says Gillis. “If we ever had a good price break — I’m talking a dollar difference from gasoline — that would make a big difference,” he said.

There’s also the alternative view that by the time we’re accustomed to E85, it will be passé. Mary-Leah Assad,  spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, points out that an even greener biofuel called “cellulosic ethanol,” made from agricultural, wood, or food waste, is being heavily researched as an alternative.

“A number of Massachusetts R&D firms are investigating cost-effective cellulosic ethanol production, so we want to pave the way for their products and their efforts,” she e-mailed me.

And you thought “Back to the Future” was just a movie.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Face­book page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.  
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