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Cars On Alcohol, Part 7: Methanol in North America
In 1993, methanol activities were gaining momentum in the U.S. and Canada. Above the border, the Canadian Oxygenated Fuels Assoc. was providing a new methanol fuel systems guide for fleets. Sunoco also had a permanent methanol dispensing station in operation, Canada's first. There was a new effort in the States to bring M85 methanol fueling to a growing number of stations. One exciting idea was forwarded by MG Refining and Marketing, which proposed an ambitious plan to establish 2500 new M85 pumps at independent gas stations across the U.S. These activities are detailed here in reports from Green Car?s archives...just as they ran in the early years when methanol and ethanol flexible-fuel vehicles were beginning their long journey to market.
METHANOL STATION GUIDE
There is an active methanol-fueled vehicle program underway in Canada that includes the development of needed refueling facilities. To aid those contemplating the operation of methanol fleets, the Canadian Oxygenated Fuels Assoc. (COFA) has prepared a 60-page methanol fuel systems guide detailing the planning and design of underground storage and dispensing systems.
Included are rather detailed material lists plus drawings of suggested designs, component sources (most are in the U.S.), and cost estimates for several installations of differing capacities. An appendix covers health and safety issues. The document also includes a description of a prototype methanol underground storage and dispensing unit built for Sunoco (Scarborough, Ontario), the first permanent methanol fueling station in Canada.
MG REFINING PLANS M85 STATIONS
Methanol’s most vocal proponent in the U.S. is the California Energy Commission (CEC), which has championed M85 as a viable alternative to gasoline in the state and nurtured a small but growing number of methanol refueling stations. CEC is well on the way to achieving its goal of 81 initial methanol outlets. Still, that’s only a small first step in building an acceptable methanol infrastructure.
Limited driving range means that methanol cars must be refueled more often than gasoline powered cars. That requires ready access to methanol stations if these flexible-fuel vehicles are to be filled up with M85 instead of gasoline. But 81 stations in a state the size of California is minimal by any measure. Even the “fuel trigger” written into California’s low emission vehicle program—a requirement that oil companies install a substantial number of additional M85 stations in the state once 20,000 FFVs are on the road—may not be enough to encourage widespread interest in methanol-powered vehicles. So what’s the answer to establishing this alternative fuel in the state, and ultimately in the U.S.?
Enter MG Refining and Marketing, a subsidiary of Metallgesellschaft Corp. (New York, N.Y.), which has announced plans to develop up to 2500 M85 refueling facilities in the U.S. over the next three to five years. “We have started already,” says Patrick Schnitzer, Vice president of Metallgesellschaft. “We have a station in Chicago and one in Houston, and we’ve targeted, under specific programs, a couple of other cities. Our marketing team is out talking to the independent gas stations right now.” The company is initially targeting states with the largest near-term potential for methanol use, so California is of prime interest.
Several distinctions set this program apart. One is that the company is looking to sign up independent service stations instead of those operated in conjunction with major oil companies. Another is that Metallgesellschaft has an ownership interest in Methanex, the world’s largest producer of methanol. So there’s plenty of motivation to get hundreds of M85 refueling facilities established to greatly expand the sales of Methanex product.
Making a station methanol-capable typically requires the addition of a double-walled in-ground tank and special piping to handle the more corrosive fuel. The company cites that conversion cost is expected to top out at about $40,000 to $50,000 per station. “We’re working on a program where we would have a financing arrangement to install those tanks, and at the same time a supply agreement from a methanol facility,” Schnitzer told Green Car, “It can be a fixed price arrangement, a guaranteed margin arrangement, or a capped arrangement, depending on the market.”
One concept being espoused by the company is replacing a station’s existing mid-grade fuel pump with M85 in a typical three-pump island. The rationale is that most people wouldn’t miss this particular fuel. MG studies show that mid-grade gasoline is the fuel of choice for only 15% of these station’s customers, who mostly fuel up instead on regular unleaded or premium unleaded.
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