Wal-Mart considers E85 at nearly 300 gas stations

By | October 02, 2006
  • WARNING: Resizehelper couldn't find requeted file: /datadrive/websites/ethanolproducer.com/app/webroot/uploads/posts/magazine/617-1292253890.jpg
Wal-Mart had announced the possibility of selling E85 at nearly 300 Wal-Mart and Sam's Club gas stations in the past, and although the retail giant is still considering the switch, it hasn't made any promises yet. "It's something we're considering, but we're not ready to announce anything at this point," said Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardener.

If implemented, E85 pumps would be installed at 288 gas stations owned and operated by the company, 280 of which are located at Sam's Club locations and eight which are at Wal-Marts, Gardener said. That doesn't include more than 1,000 on-site gas stations operated by Murphy U.S., however.

As Wal-Mart mulls it over, a lot of people within the ethanol industry have their collective fingers crossed. If Wal-Mart goes for it, more consumers with flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) would have access to the high-blend fuel. Currently, out of 170,000 U.S. service stations, only 920 have E85 fuel pumps, according to Michelle Kautz, director of communications for the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC).

Perhaps the bigger impact, however, is the chain reaction that could come with an E85 nod from Wal-Mart. Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, told EPM it could be the catalyst E85 needs. Not only would there be more E85 fueling stations, but consumers would know where to get it, even when traveling.

Kautz agreed that it would be good for ethanol's image. "Since Wal-Mart is such a large retailer and it is in the public eye all the time, we feel this would be a positive education campaign for E85," she said.

The Ethanol Promotion and Information Council is excited about the added consumer exposure, said Tom Slunecka, the organization's executive director. "Depending on its success, it could very well be the tipping point for ethanol sales and E85 markets," he said.

Right now, oil companies are "understandably reluctant" to sell ethanol at their service stations, Detchon said. That could change with competition from Wal-Mart. "As demand for E85 increases certainly gasoline retailers will not want to give up that part of the market," he said.

There are a lot of things Wal-Mart needs to consider before it commits to installing E85 pumps, Gardener said. One is that the company wants to make sure it is confident of a steady supply of the biofuel. Wal-Mart is also waiting for Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) to certify a pump specifically for ethanol distribution.

In August, EPM reported that Austin, Texas-based Dresser Wayne had received that approval. However, Scott Negley, Dresser Wayne's director of dispenser product management, said the company had spoken with EPM when it had received a "promise of an approval date" from UL, rather than the official approval. Afterward, UL informed Dresser Wayne that the standards for ethanol pumps would be updated, delaying the distribution of Dresser Wayne's product. In hindsight, Negley said the company should have waited before announcing an approval.

Still, Dresser Wayne is confident its product won't require any changes after the UL updates its standards. Wal-Mart has multiple venders, and Dresser Wayne is one of the suppliers Wal-Mart is waiting on for a UL-approved E85 pump, according to Negley.
John Drengenberg, UL consumer affairs manager and engineer, said the organization is actively working on updating the standards for fuel pumps specifically because of ethanol. The organization is in the information-gathering stage. Once that is completed, likely in October, the UL will open a 30-day comment period on possible changes to the standard, Drengenberg said.