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A row of U cars.

A row of University of Minnesota cars at the recent Fleet Services fall auction.

E85 fuels U vehicles

By Pauline Oo

December 28, 2005

In 1985, the University of Minnesota powered its fleet of 800-plus vehicles with fossil fuels. Ten years later, it swapped a portion of that gasoline-guzzling fleet for flexible-fuel vehicles--automobiles that can feed on unleaded gasoline and an alcohol fuel.

Today, the University is one of the greatest users of E85 fuel--85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline--in the state and nationally.

"Most government entities that have to buy E85 vehicles end up just using regular gasoline," says Bill Roberts, U Fleet Services director. "We have two onsite E85 fueling stations on the Twin Cities campus, and that's why we end up being one of the larger users of E85."

The U, which has 832 vehicles in its fleet including 71 flexible-fuel vehicles and 14 gas and electric hybrid vehicles, goes through about 20,000 gallons of E85 a year. (Its almost six-year-old fueling station in Minneapolis stores 6,000 gallons of E85; the St. Paul location, which opened in November 2003, holds 4,000 gallons.) "We added E85 when we either added or remodeled a fuel island, so cost was minimal," says Roberts. Both stations receive fuel every four months from the Chippewa Valley Co-op, which also delivers to other E85 locations in the area.

Earlier this month the University of Minnesota Fleet Services was named among The 100 Best Fleets in North America, and last week Roberts was notified that his department also snagged the 2005 Governor's MnGREAT Award, which will be presented at a special ceremony during the Minnesota Air, Water, and Waste Environmental Conference in February 2006.

The former, sponsored by industry magazine Fleet Equipment, recognizes outstanding operations for others to emulate. (The 185 award applicants were judged on criteria such as effective use of technology, repair turnaround time, recognition programs, and competitive pricing.) The MnGREAT Award, sponsored by the Pollution Control Agency, honors Minnesota organizations that are committed to preserving the environment through innovative pollution and waste prevention, resource efficiency, and sustainable practices.

Wear and tear

Every fall, Fleet Services holds an auction when it updates its fleet. This November, it sold 70 vehicles, or $400,000 worth of cars, truck, and vans. "We generally buy and dispose of around 100 vehicles a year," explains Fleet Services director Bill Roberts. Which is not a large number, he adds, considering the U has about 850 vehicles in its fleet. "If we were a commercial fleet, we would probably be turning over a third of our fleet in a year because they put on a lot more miles. But since we don't drive that much, we generally replace about an eighth of our fleet every year."

"This is the first time we've won both awards," says Roberts. "I am honored that our department has been nationally recognized. We pride ourselves in constantly seeing new innovations and ways to improve our operation." In addition to using E85 fuel, Fleet Services uses biodegradable washing solvent and recycled motor oil, and it also recycles tires, batteries, and other vehicle parts at its shop.

Go Minnesota Minnesota is the only state that requires all gasoline sold within its borders to contain at least 10 percent ethanol, and this year, Governor Tim Pawlenty joined lawmakers in raising that requirement to 20 percent by 2013. He also has supported a law that requires diesel fuel to contain 2 percent vegetable oil.

"Minnesota is ahead of the game in terms of E85 use," says Roberts. "We have 135 E85 stations in the state, which is probably more than the rest of the country.

"On the Twin Cities campus we make sure our flexible-fuel vehicles use ethanol," says Roberts. "When they travel we encourage [faculty and staff who rent the vehicles] to use ethanol, but the percentages of ethanol use then are a lot lower because there are big portions of the state that don't have any E85 stations, and there are some people who don't know what an E85 vehicle means. So when they need gas, they just go to the nearest gas station."

Education is key, adds Roberts, and his department is looking at producing brochures and dashboard notices to encourage drivers to fill up with E85, as well as placing a list of E85 stations in glove compartments.

Did you know?

* The Twin Cities campus is the third largest traffic generator in Minnesota, with nearly 80,000 people coming and going each day. Downtown Minneapolis leads the pack.

* Summer is the busiest time for University vehicle use. "That's when school is out and our researchers and graduate students need a vehicle to head out to the fields," says Roberts. The Twin Cities rental pool reaches a peak of between 80 and 90 vehicles during the summer, and then drops to 55 in the fall.

Roberts says flex-fuel vehicles do not run any differently from their gasoline-only cousins, but "they're good for the environment and the fuel generally costs a little bit less." According to the U.S. Department of Energy Effieciency and Renewable Energy, alternative fuel use--such as ethanol, natural gas, propane, hydrogen, and electricity--can reduce harmful pollutants and exhaust emissions.

Currently, there are more than four million flexible-fuel vehicles on U.S. roadways, estimates the Energy Information Administration. However, many of the drivers--simply out of ignorance--remain unaware that they can pump E85 into their vehicle.

(To determine if your vehicle can take E85 fuel, check your owner's manual or the fuel-filler door or call your dealer. For a list of E85 stations in the United States, visit the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.)