The first gas station pump in Maryland to dispense clean-burning ethanol -- a fuel made largely from corn or other grains -- opened in Laurel to great fanfare in November 2001. More than a year later, however, the pump is rarely used by motorists and has broken three times.
"It's been slow going," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, part of a group of farmers and environmentalists pushing for greater use of ethanol in the Washington region. So far, Hoot and others said, their campaign has been hindered by administrative glitches, lack of public awareness and resistance from major oil companies.
In the last two years, the grain producers association has obtained $330,000 in federal energy grants, plus $330,000 in state funds and other private donations, to support the ethanol effort in the region. The group had hoped to have 10 pumps in place in the Baltimore-Washington region by the end of last year.
So far, though, there are only three: the one in Laurel, at Fort Meade Service Center in the 3200 block of Laurel Fort Meade Road; one at the Navy Exchange Gas Station in the 800 block of South Joyce Street in Arlington County; and one run by Montgomery County and open to the public at the county's transportation depot in the 16600 block of Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville. Another is set to open this month at Citgo Quik Mart in the 2000 block of West Street in Annapolis, and pumps are planned for Washington and Baltimore.
More than 500,000 newer-model cars in the Washington region can run on ethanol fuel -- which mixes alcohol made from the corn and other grains with a small percentage of gasoline -- but the same vehicles also run on gasoline. Most owners of these eco-friendly cars fill their tanks at regular gasoline pumps because of the scarcity of ethanol pumps, said Jill Hamilton, an energy consultant to the Maryland farm group.
Despite the problems, sales of the fuel have increased, Hamilton said. The amount of ethanol sold at the Citgo station in Arlington has increased from 1,000 gallons a month three years ago to 2,600 a month last year. The Laurel and Rockville stations have held steady at 5,000 and 2,000 gallons a month, respectively, Hamilton said.
Since the 1970s, environmental activists, farmers and politicians from Corn Belt states have touted ethanol as an ecologically friendly alternative to gasoline. Congress began offering tax incentives to automakers for building cars using alternative power sources -- such as electricity or ethanol -- in the late 1980s.
Although small percentages of ethanol have been blended into gasoline for years, the first fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline was introduced in 1993.
Proponents tout ethanol as a naturally renewable resource that is produced domestically and reduces pollution and dependence on foreign oil.
"Users can feel good about lowering greenhouse emissions, supporting the domestic economy and not supporting imported oil from the volatile Middle East," Hamilton said.
But the fuel is costly, with prices here ranging from 20 cents to 37 cents more per gallon than gasoline. It is available at just 120 locations in the United States.
Environmental benefits of ethanol are widely debated. Critics say the production of ethanol wastes energy and is costly. They say the product's long-term viability is doubtful, especially as automakers explore other types of fuel-efficient cars, such as hybrid gas and electric models and cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells.
In their group's quest to find station owners willing to install ethanol pumps, Hoot and Hamilton said, it had to focus on a small number of independently owned stations, because major oil companies were not interested.
Oil industry experts say ethanol is not a proven moneymaker. In addition, many stations do not have storage capacity for more pumps, according to Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association.
The effort to market ethanol also has been complicated by the fact that most ethanol is made in the Midwest. Problems related to licensing and bonding agreements tied up Maryland's ethanol shipments for three months last year, Hamilton said, and the new pumps went dry.
Ethanol proponents say they would like to see an ethanol production plant in Maryland within three years, but that idea has complications. The state produces 30 million to 50 million bushels of corn a year, but the region's poultry industry devours it.
Because Maryland has no surplus corn, farmers must use other crops if they hope to make an economically feasible form of ethanol, according to Jose Costa, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture.
Costa and other researchers are testing a kind of barley that grows without a thick hull that they hope farmers would be able to use for profitable ethanol production. The plants are being tested at research farms in the state.
Diana Hammer, the manager of the Fort Meade Service Center, said most of her ethanol business comes from drivers of government vehicles from nearby Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.
Beyond those motorists, Hammer said, she gets only a few customers a month at the ethanol pump.
The Maryland Grain Producers Association plans public awareness campaigns for owners of alternative fuel vehicles -- such as some late-model Ford Taurus sedans and Explorers and Chevrolet Suburbans -- through local car dealerships in the coming year. The group said it hopes a total of six ethanol pump locations will be up and running for public use in the state by 2004.
"I think what's going to happen is that when the price of gasoline gets out of sight and ethanol products become more readily available, we'll see an increase," Hamilton said.