Free fuel promotes alternative

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 21, 2003

There's no such thing as a free ride.

But for some drivers at Severson's Conoco station, there was such a thing as a free tank of gas.

Drivers of "fuel-flexible" vehicles flocked to the station on Fourth Street NW in Austin Thursday to fuel up on E85 fuel, which is made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum.

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Representatives from its sponsors, the American Lung Association and Usem's Inc., were on hand from 3 to 6 p.m. to pump the fuel. In less than an hour, 45 vehicles had come by for the free fuel.

"When I first got here, there were 20 cars right in a row," said Ed Lundmark, a salesman at Usem's. "We were handing out stuff and couldn't keep up."

By 6 p.m. 75 people had taken advantage of the deal.

Drivers came for the obvious reason -- free fuel-- but also expressed their support for ethanol farmers, less dependence on foreign oil and cleaner burning fuel.

Severson's Conoco is the only gas station in Austin that offers E85. When the station redid its pumps, owner Tom Severson decided to add an ethanol pump.

"I like to be on the leading edge. Something like this is pretty new," Severson said. His station is one of 73 in the state that sells E85.

The American Lung Association wants to promote the fuel alternative because it produces less tailpipe emissions and boosts the Minnesota economy, said Tim Gerlach of the ALA. In the past two years, the ALA has held free fuel days at E85 locations around the state.

Area towns such as Glenville, Preston and Claremont have recently expanded their ethanol plants. But two weeks ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut $20.1 million in ethanol plant subsidies to help balance the state's $356 million budget deficit for this fiscal year.

Those cuts concern Gerlach.

"It's short-sighted to cut things that are part of our future," Gerlach said.

Between 85,000 to 100,000 vehicles that are designed to use E85 fuel are registered in Minnesota, Gerlach said.

Tom Sherman, owner of Usem's Inc., said E85-compatible trucks are one of his biggest sellers.

"It's good for the environment, good for farmers and good for gas mileage," Sherman said.

Lundmark said when selling trucks to some farmers, the first thing they ask is if it takes E85.

"That's important for farmers to have that," he said.

It was one of the reasons Richard Nelson, an Albert Lea farmer who stopped for free fuel, bought a Chrysler mini-van that can run on E85. He also noted benefits for his car.

"It gets better mileage and the engine is supposed to be cleaner," he said.

Usem’s customers who drive "fuel-flexible" vehicles were sent a postcard about the promotion. For some it was a reminder that their vehicle even had that capability.

Other drivers didn't know a station in Austin sold the fuel, which is one of the reasons Severson said he decided to participate in the free fuel day.

"It gets people interested," he said.

Jan Peterson, who drove her 1999 Ford Ranger to Conoco for the fuel, said the cheaper price, which was listed at $1.49 a gallon, interested her.

"I'll come back," she said.

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at