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More ethanol choices on the way for Minnesota, region

ST. PAUL — Finding gasoline mixed with higher percentages of ethanol soon will be easier for Upper Midwest motorists.

A federal grant is due to help fund 620 new "blender pumps" around Minnesota that can dispense fuels with 15 percent to 85 percent ethanol content. That is third to the number of pumps the federal program will help install in Texas and Florida.

Other area states also are due for aid, including Iowa, with 187 pumps; Wisconsin, 120; North Dakota, 90; and South Dakota, 74. Nearly 5,000 blender pumps will be added across the country.

Nearly 200 million cars and light trucks built in 2001 and later can use the 15 percent blend, known as E15, federal authorities have determined.

Higher blends, such as E85, can be used by nearly 20 million flex-fuel vehicles made in recent years.

"It will not harm your emissions systems ... your engine," said Kevin Hennessy, Minnesota Agriculture Department biofuels manager. "My suggestion is to try it and see if you like it."

Ethanol generally is made from corn.

Most states followed Minnesota's lead in the 1980s and have required that gasoline include 10 percent ethanol, mostly due to its ability to cut pollution. In corn territory, some states have provided funding to help ethanol take off.

Few states have helped add blender pumps, but Minnesota has had a program in operation two years. More than 40 stations in the state have installed 120 pumps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant announcement, to be followed in a couple of weeks with release of specific dollar amounts each state will receive, was greeted with enthusiasm in the corn belt.

"Corn farmers have scored a big point in our ongoing battle with big oil and its efforts to use its deep pockets and lobbying power to block the installation of flex-fuel infrastructure,” said Doug Albin, who farms near Clarkfield, Minn., and leads the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council.

The council is among organizations, along with the state, that will provide money to match the federal grant.

Kelly Marczak of the American Lung Association said the increase in federal, state and private funds to improve the flex-fuel infrastructure demonstrates a strong demand across the country for cleaner, more affordable fuel.

Higher ethanol blends produce higher octane, less pollution and cost less.

Hennessy said that he filled his car's tank with E15 Wednesday morning, paying $2.01 a gallon.

However, while ethanol has benefits, it also produces less energy than pure gasoline and miles per gallon figures usually drop. Hennessy said E15 produces 98.2 percent of the energy of E10.

Existing Minnesota blender pumps are concentrated in the Twin Cities to get the most sales possible, but they also are in a variety of cities around the state including Perham, Pipestone, Bemidji and Willmar, Hennessy said.

The federally funded program also will be focused in the Twin Cities, he said, but it also will help pay for pumps in other parts of the state.

“Access to more pumps should provide consumers with more opportunities to use biofuels in their vehicles if that is their choice," U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said.

At the same time, the congressman added, studying how blended fuel sales go will help government officials determine whether to continue ethanol programs.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said it is important to build the new infrastructure so Iowans may use more of the ethanol produced in their state.

While the ethanol production plant growth spurt of a few years ago has slowed, two new plants are under construction in the country and others on the drawing boards. One planned plant would be in central South Dakota, where Ringneck Energy hopes to build a $140 million operation.

Ringneck President Walt Wendland is traveling North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota to find investors. He has helped start two Iowa ethanol plants.

"You want to see those dividends go back into those communities," he said. "I don't want to see large oil companies owning these, or large corporations owning these plants. To me, it's about being able to add value and own a piece of these that's a great model."

Marcus Traxler contributed to this story.

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