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Should Premium Fuel Still Warrant a Tank?

March 23, 2015


RFA talks with thousands of fuel retailers at petroleum marketer meetings, conferences, webinars, and one-on-one meetings. Over the course of these meetings it quickly becomes clear that every decision made by fuel retailers is based on return on investment (ROI) and the outcome of every decision is compounded exponentially for the 60% that are single station owners. Today, nearly all of these stations offer premium fuel, but should they? Until this year, the business case for E15 hinged on what vehicles the EPA had approved: 2001 & newer light duty cars, trucks and SUVs. These vehicles tally over 203 million, or 83% of the U.S. fleet. That is more than enough to justify the infrastructure to support them. But that has not happened and we must ask why not. The reason most often given is that while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the use of E15 in these vehicles, the auto manufacturers have not. So what do the facts say? RFA recently found that 70% of MY15 vehicles are explicitly warranted for E15 — a trend that has been moving upward since MY12. So, just how many vehicles are now explicitly warranted for E15? More than 41 million! Add to that the 18 million FFVs that are also approved for E15, and there are 59 million E15 warranted cars on the road today. For comparison, there are just 15 million cars requiring premium gas today. But, no high performance automobile owner has trouble finding premium fuel! Here is the breakdown:

  • ~244,000,000 light duty vehicles on the road today
  • ~15,000,000 require premium fuel
  • ~203,000,000 are 2001 & newer and approved by EPA to use E15
  • ~41,000,000 are explicitly warranted for E15
  • ~18,000,000 are FFVs (also warranted for E15)
  • ~41,000,000 vehicles are 2000 & older
The fact that there are four times as many vehicles fully warranted for the use of E15 than those requiring premium gas today should be a compelling consideration for retailers considering the switch to E15 and E85. Many retailers are shocked to find that they are dedicating an entire fuel tank to premium fuel, which allows them to service fewer vehicles than if they sold E15 and E85. If retailers would consider converting their premium tank to E85 and installing a blender pump to allow for E15, they would gain both segments from one existing underground storage tank. The potential consumer fleet would jump from just 15 million vehicles to 59 million vehicles. Moreover, premium sales have been dropping. Most retailers will concede that premium sales are between 1–4% of their total volume, while stations making the conversion to E85 — and adding E15 — have demonstrated that they can turn that 1–4% into 20–30%. The business case for higher blends of ethanol is actually quite simple. If retailers want to differentiate themselves, lower their consumer price at the pump, increase their overall fuel volumes, boost their in store sales, and ultimately increase their profits ... premium might not be the wisest fuel choice. Success will come in the form of higher-level ethanol blends.