When it comes to trends, Memphis isn't known for leading the way. In fact, the city has a reputation for being a little, well, fashionably late.
That's been the case with the availability of ethanol, a renewable fuel made from corn. Ethanol blends have been sold at fueling stations in Middle and East Tennessee for more than a year, but the biofuel has only recently become available in Memphis.
Over the past few months, several Memphis Mapco and Circle K fueling stations have added labels to their pumps alerting customers that their gasoline contains ethanol.
Known as E-10, the fuel contains 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Blends as high as 85 percent ethanol are sold in other parts of the state but are not yet available in Memphis.
"You'll see a 20 to 30 percent reduction, in some emissions with E-10," says Robert White, director of operations at the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council. "E-85 is definitely more bang for your buck, but E-10 is very promising despite its low concentration."
Though the fuel has some environmental benefits, local biofuel proponent Andrew Couch says area gas stations are likely more concerned with the bottom line than with improving air quality.
"Crude oil prices are high, and there's an economic advantage to blending 10 percent ethanol. Ethanol is cheaper," says Couch, executive director of the West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of renewable fuels. "There's a price advantage, but it's not for you and me. It's for the refiner, and they're not passing it on."
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture samples fuel from more than 4,000 gas stations across the state. Though they do not have an exact count of how many Memphis stations are selling ethanol, regulatory services manager Randy Jennings says the trend is picking up across the state.
Last year, 44 facilities statewide sold E-10. This year, Jennings has already seen 181 places selling E-10.
"That's about three times the number we had last year, and we're not even through the year yet," Jennings says. "Late in 2007 is when we started to see a lot of ethanol."
No one is certain why Memphis has taken so long to catch on, but Jennings believes a new ethanol plant planned for Obion County will help grow the trend in West Tennessee.
There is some controversy in environmental circles over using a food source for fuel. However, research on producing ethanol from non-food sources, such as switchgrass, is currently under way. Conflicting studies also claim more energy is used to grow corn than the energy ethanol saves as a fuel.
"I'm sold on the idea of renewable energy in general," Couch says. "What we have right now is certainly not the best we're ever going to have. I'm careful to tell people that this is not going to fix everything. It may even create some problems. But eventually, the technology has the potential to fix a lot."