Originally created 09/14/03

Biodiesel sales low at gas sites



SAN DIEGO - At a just-opened San Diego fuel station, attendants in white, 1950s-style uniforms clean customers' windshields and offer to fill their tanks with biodiesel made from fish-fry grease and ethanol made from waste scraped off the floor of a cheese plant.

Electric cars can charge their batteries for free. There's also natural gas and liquefied propane gas or LPG, both popular, less-polluting gasoline alternatives.

"No one has ever put all of these in one place," said Mike Lewis, who manages the Regional Transportation Center, which offers six alternative fuels.

But so far, the station, which opened in early August, isn't seeing a steady flow of customers for the exotic combustibles. The No. 1 fuel at the station of the future is plain old gas.

Still, gasoline and diesel sales pay the bills and leave the center well-positioned for California's clean vehicle movement aimed at fighting the nation's worst air pollution while cutting dependence on oil. California has set a goal of having one of every 10 new vehicles sold in the state be nonpolluting by 2018. The RTC aims to solve one of the challenges posed by the mandate: Where do you fill 'er up?

"You want these products to be marketed and sold just like gasoline," said Dan Fong, a transportation technology specialist with the California Energy Commission. "You don't want to go to a dark corner in a barren location and get fuel for your vehicle."

The $15 million RTC was conceived more than five years ago by a Ford dealership marketing executive. Today, it includes a garage with mechanics specializing in alternative fuel vehicles and an education center. Pearson Ford, the dealership that bankrolled the center, sells Ford Motor Co.'s line of alternative fuel vehicles beneath an adjacent structure.

The project helps solve what Mr. Lewis calls the chicken-and-egg problem for alternative vehicles - should alternative fuel stations spur sales of the vehicles or vehicle sales lead to more alternative fuel pumps?

With the RTC, he said, "we built the chicken and the egg. In this area, we're taking away the excuses."