Wal-Mart may market Flex Fuel (cont.)
Before Wal-Mart could begin selling the alternative fuel, the company needs to feel confident that it will have access to ample supplies of ethanol, at a price competitive with gasoline. Fuel pricing is a complicated matter - prices for ethanol spiked this summer, even as lots of new supply is came into the market place. Wal-Mart is also waiting for ethanol dispensers to be certified by UL (Underwriters Laboratory), which performs multiple tests on products for safety. UL does not actually "approve" any product; rather it tests product samples and permits acceptable products to carry the UL certification mark. The products are then licensed to carry the certification as long as they continue to conform with the standards and, with the samples tested to those standards.
Beyond price, there are other key issues which need to be resolved before Americans being to regularly fill their tanks with ethanol. Many experts believe that so long as ethanol comes from corn kernels or sugar cane, ethanol fuel production will create stresses on the world's food supply. The next best thing in the ethanol arena is cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic
Ethanol can be made from prairie switchgrass, corn husks and other waste products but, mass production of cellulosic ethanol isn't expected for a couple of years. Transporting ethanol from farm country to population centers is another challenge as it cannot be moved via pipeline, or stored for long periods of time due to absorption of water, and other contaminants.
Consumers also need to learn more about this alternative, renewable fuel and the auto industry' is working on educating the public. You may have seen GM's clever "Live Green, Go Yellow" advertising campaign, which touts the benefits of corn based Ethanol.
GM's also been trying to help create, and build an ethanol infrastructure in the US. In California, Texas, Pennsylvania and several Midwestern states, General Motors has helped bring together ethanol refiners, with governments and independent service stations to sell E85.
The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition keeps a list of E85 stations online. Philip J. Lampert, the executive director, says the number of stations has doubled in the past two years. "It's still just a drop in the bucket, but we're making significant progress," he says.
This leaves people like Reid Detchon, who served in the energy department in the first Bush administration and, has been involved with ethanol issues since the 80's, feeling like ethanol's moment may have finally arrived; Particularly if Wal-Mart gets on board. "If oil stays at anything like these prices, I think ethanol will grow as fast as the farmers can produce it. We are on the cusp of a fundamental change."
Wal-Mart's interest in alternative fuels like ethanol comes as part of its sweeping efforts to adopt environmentally minded business practices. Wal-Mart has organized more than a dozen "sustainable value networks" that are composed of suppliers, environmentalists, industry experts and government officials to help guide them into the future.