E15: A Powerful Fuel
Ethanol has been around for a while, but E15 is a newer product, offering traditional E10 gasoline blended with an additional 5 percent of ethanol, creating a 15 percent blend. Although E15 has only hit the fuel market recently after overcoming a few initial regulatory setbacks, it has grown rapidly, directly benefiting Indiana corn farmers as it increases consumer demand for ethanol.
E15 is considered the most tested fuel in history, undergoing extensive examination to become EPA approved. Part of the approval process began with a study conducted by Argon National Labs, where their team drove 86 new cars fueled only with E15 a total of 6 million miles. The study found zero performance or engine problems attributed to the fuel.
Because of this study, E15 has been approved by the EPA for all vehicle makes and models year 2001 and newer. This approval means that over 84% of all vehicles on U.S. roads can safely choose E15 at the pump. [cite full study or reference in footnote?]
In addition to being safe for vehicles, E15 also improves fuel power. Because ethanol is the lowest cost fuel additive per octane unit, adding the additional 5 percent to create E15 allows the fuel to be both higher octane (88.4 vs 87 for E10 or E0) and lower cost (typically 5 - 10 cents cheaper per gallon). Considering E15 is powerful and cheap, it’s popularity has increased rapidly. In fact, it drives 25-50 percent of station sales when available — and that’s the catch.
S.517 and H.R. 1311: Working to Propel E15
Although E15 has been EPA approved, tested and widely accepted by the public, it still has a drawback: it’s unable to be sold during summer months in most Indiana markets. This is because E15 is currently caught in the red tape of a regulatory loophole regarding the fuel’s Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP).
To break it down, RVP is the amount of pressure caused by the evaporative emissions of a fuel. Under the Clean Air Act, all fuels in the U.S. are required to remain within a nine pound per square inch (psi) cap for the maximum amount of evaporative emissions.
However, because fuel becomes slightly more volatile when mixed with smaller quantities of ethanol, all fuels with a 0-10 percent ethanol blend were given a one pound waiver to this limit in the early 1990s. The waiver has never been extended to fuels with greater than 10% ethanol blends, even though E10 creates the highest potential RVP for ethanol blended fuels, and RVP values drop as ethanol blend percentages increase.
Throughout the year, E15 remains within the 9-psi threshold, just like most other fuels. However, during the “summer ozone season,” which runs from June 1 to September 15 each year, the gas from evaporation expands more and can cause the RVP of the fuel to become greater than 9-psis. This possible rise in psi prohibits E15 from being sold in summer months, which can make it difficult for consumers to build trust and recognition for the product, and limit retailers from making necessary infrastructure upgrades.
Despite these setbacks, the positives surrounding E15 have helped it grow since its EPA approval in 2012. Today, the fuel has over 800 stations in 24 states with 1,200 more expected to hit the market by the end of this year.
Getting Over the Hurdle
The final major obstacle for the fuel is to extend the waiver currently given to E10 to all ethanol blended fuels. The bipartisan Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (S. 517, H.R. 1311) clarifies that blends greater than 10%, such as E15, should receive the same RVP treatment as E10, eliminating this annual consumer confusion at the pump. Enacting this legislation would lead more retailers to offer E15, give consumers a choice that saves money, enhance vehicle performance and improve the environment.