RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina is becoming more committed to finding solutions imported oil, and technology is one of the drivers.

The Triangle’s first station to sell E85 fuel, which is 85 percent ethanol, opens on Friday.

Efforts are also underway to build four ethanol production plants in North Carolina, including three planned by Raleigh-based Agri-Ethanol Products. Agri-Ethanol has secured as much as $3 billion in financing to build up to 20 plants across the Southeast and Atlantic Coasts.

“Every gallon we produce is renewable,” said Terry Ruso, chief operating officer of Agri-Ethanol. “Every gallon leads us closer to energy independence.”

Another Raleigh company, Advanced Energy, is working encourage the manufacture and use of hybrid school buses that incorporate rechargeable battery power.

Right now, a hot topic is ethanol.

Some 16,000 vehicles made by many major automobile manufacturers to run on fuel mixed with 85 percent ethanol are now being driven around the Triangle, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. But there are a couple of problems:

One, many people don’t know that their vehicle is an FFV, or Flex Fuel Vehicle.

Two, places to buy the renewable fuel mix made up of ethanol derived from sources such as corn or sugarcane, have been unavailable except for one station, America’s Fuel, in Southern Pines. But that situation will begin to change on Friday.

We Wanted To Be a Leader’

Holmes Oil Company, which is based in Chapel Hill, will begin selling so-called E85 fuel (the ethanol mix) on Friday at its Cruizers Convenience Store at 1914 Sedwick Road in Durham. The station is at the intersection with Highway 55.

“We wanted to be a leader in this area,” said Barber Holmes, brother of Edward Holmes, the president of Holmes Oil Company. “The top three auto manufacturers now have Flex Fuel models, and the Triangle needs this product.”

The price is expected to be close to that of regular unleaded fuel.

The station will not sell E10 fuel, which is 10 percent ethanol. Some 20 to 25 stations in the Triangle offer E10, according to Tobin Freid of the Triangle J Council of Governments. Freid oversees the Triangle Clean Cities Coalition, a Triangle J effort to improve air quality in the region and reduce petroleum usage. A Flex Fuel vehicle is not needed to use E10, she said.

Fuels including ethanol can be cheaper than regular petroleum products. “Pricing depends upon the availability,” Freid explained.

Other stations could add E85 fuels in the future, Freid added. But the first step remains making people aware they may have an FFV.

“Most people don’t know that they have a flex fuel vehicle,” said Freid. “The vehicles are not marketed that way.” The FFVs can also run on regular fuel, so finding a source for E85 hasn’t been a necessity.

Some 10 stations across North Carolina, including the one in Southern Pines and another planned in Pinehurst, sell or plan to offer E85.

Various federal and state incentives are being offered to station owners to convert existing tanks or build new ones to offer E85.

More Awareness Developing

As fuel prices continue to rise and manufacturers look to capitalize on growing interest in alternative fuel vehicles, Freid said public awareness is expected to change.

For one thing, she said, the auto manufacturers may start putting yellow gas caps on FFVs.

Automakers such as GM have also featured FFVs in recent advertisements.

The sources for E85 as well as another alternative fuel known as biodiesel will increase as consumer demand grows, Freid added.

“There aren’t any concrete plans in the pipeline for additional stations at this point,” she said, “but owners have said they will expand to offer these fuels if demand grows.”

Holmes Oil Company opened the first station to sell biodiesel fuel at its Cruizers station in Durham at the intersection of North Duke Street and Roxboro Road.

“Edward is a committed environmentalist,” Freid said of the Holmes Oil president. “He believes we need to reduce our reliance on petroleum.”

Any diesel vehicle can operate on biodiesel, which includes a 20 percent mixture of fuel made from such sources as soy oil, used frying oil and meat renderings.

If you want to see if you have a flex-fuel vehicle, a website for information is available at: www.e85fuel.com/e85101/flexfuelvehicles.php

For station locations locally and nationally, see: www.e85fuel.com/database/search.php

For various incentives available to people interested in alternative fuels in North Carolina, see: www.gm.com/automotive/innovations/altfuel/incentives/NC.htm

Triangle Clean Cities Coalition: www.trianglecleancities.org