OPINION: Conference panel looks at challenge of retailer future

By Cassie Mullen, director of market development, Renewable Fuels Association | March 03, 2021

At the recent National Ethanol Conference, I had the opportunity to lead of panel of key retailers to discuss tapping new markets for ethanol blends. The panelists, which  included representatives from Pearson Fuels, H&H Operations, Orion Oil and Bulk Petroleum, provided a lot of insight I am still sifting through.

One of the biggest challenges facing these fuel marketers is the shifting political scene and the current historic drive toward electric vehicles. Just this week, Volvo announced it will go fully electric by 2030. As ambitious as this sounds, similar large commitments to EVs have been announced by several other major automakers, including GM and Ford.

”Our main concern is the policymakers’ stance on electrification and putting all their eggs in that basket,” said Greg Jones, director of business development at Pearson Fuels. “E85 can be that bridge between now and where they want to be. The way the industry can help is is to get involved and push the car manufacturers to continue to build E85 vehicles.”

Another panelist agreed and spoke to the lack of better flex-fuel options. “We've seen flex-fuel vehicles, over the past 10 years, ramp up and then sort of ramp down,” said Michael Hyde, president of H&H Operations. “We buy a lot of vehicles through our company and we noticed that it wasn't even an option on a lot of the vehicles we've been looking to purchase over the last couple of years. I think E15 is going to be the standard in our state—or a lot of other states—really soon, replacing the E10 that we have.”

At the same time, fuel retailers are seeing the need to move toward including some space for electric vehicles. “We've started looking at putting in electric charging stations at our stations,” said Jonathan Baixauli, sales associate at Orion Oil. “We are in a very competitive market in Miami so we're always looking for different things to offer whether it is for electric charging vehicles or for E85. We haven't seen much use of the electric charging vehicles and the one station that we have put it in. But we want to offer as much as we can to all of our customers at our stations. We like staying ahead of the curve as much as we can.”

In the meantime, the retailers have been very grateful for the recent rounds of funding to support station upgrades, from the USDA Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program. “I think the grant made a big impact in our decision [to offer higher blends],” said Ronnie Dhaliwal, president of Bulk Petroleum. “We planned to do E15, but we probably wouldn't have done it at this scale that we're doing if it wasn't for the grant.”

Dhaliwal also stressed something else that will be important as retail stations face an uncertain future as the auto industry leans into a historic shift. “Our biggest concern is just educating customers, so they're aware of what E15 or E85 are, and how they will work in their vehicles, at a lower price, and better for the environment.”