Originally created 06/12/06

Alternative fuel station offers a look at the future of energy



SAN DIEGO - If the United States is going to end its addiction to oil, the fuel station of the future might look like Pearson Ford Fuel Depot.

Along with gasoline and diesel, the one-of-a-kind station - part of a dealership near busy Interstate 15 - offers a full range of clean-burning alternative fuels from ethanol to propane to BioWillie, a brand of biodiesel made from soybeans and promoted by country music legend Willie Nelson.

The station isn't profitable yet. But co-owner Mike Lewis said that could change if oil prices force consumers to seriously consider other fuels - especially in San Diego, which regularly pays among the nation's highest gas prices.

"If you could make it profitable, you could do a whole lot more to preserve the environment than all the mandates in the world," Lewis said.

At first glance, the facility looks like any other gas station - except there are pumps labeled "E85" and "compressed natural gas" along with recharging stations for people with electric cars.

The station is the only one in the country that sells such a wide range of fuels. And it's the only facility on the West Coast where private citizens can buy E85, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that can be used in a number of models that already roll from American assembly lines.

Motorists who filled up recently had a number of reasons for using the alt-fuel oasis: helping the environment, keeping their money in the United States and just seeing how their vehicle ran on a different fuel.

Retiree Karl Evans wheeled in and spent $169.96 for 50 gallons of "BioWillie" to run a tractor he uses to clear his land. He hauled the fuel back home in a pickup truck rigged to run on propane.

Evans said he doesn't like to buy gasoline.

"You're sending the money out of the country, that's for sure," he said.

High gas prices coupled with President Bush's call for Americans to reduce their dependence on foreign oil are drawing more attention to alternative fuels that can be produced domestically, sold cheaper than oil and generate lower amounts of greenhouse gases.

One of the most promising is E85, known for getting fewer miles to the gallon but higher octane, resulting in more horsepower.

The fuel works in more than 30 models, including the Yukon sport utility vehicle from General Motors Corp., Silverado trucks and Impala cars from Chevrolet, and the Ford Taurus. Those flex-fuel cars can run on gas, E85, or combinations of the two.

Sales of alternative fuels at Pearson usually hinge on the cost of gasoline and diesel. When those prices are climbing, alt-fuels can account for as much as 30 percent of overall sales, Lewis said.

On June 5, regular unleaded gas was selling for $3.29 a gallon, compared to $3.24 for diesel, $3.09 for E85, $3.29 for biodiesel, and $2.39 for natural gas.

Lewis said high gas and diesel prices don't boost the station's bottom line, so it's adding a mini-market to increase income.

To attract the customers of the future, the EcoCenter for Alternative Fuel Education, also located at the dealership, offers tours explaining the benefits of alt-fuels over gasoline.

Busloads of children - 11,500 since the center opened in 2004 - arrive daily for tours where guides discourage use of gasoline. At one exhibit, EcoCenter executive director Judy Bishop explains that drivers of electric-gas hybrids such as a Toyota Prius on display spend one-third as much on fuel as drivers of regular cars.

The anti-oil message is surprising at a center built with $1.4 million from Ford Motor Co. and $200,000 from the dealership owned by John McCallan.

Lewis, chairman of the nonprofit center's board of directors, said Ford has no say in that message. Bishop, an environmentalist, designed the lesson plans.

Lewis has been disappointed that automakers and oil companies haven't contributed to the operation of the center.

BP spokeswoman Cindy Wymore said the oil giant is impressed with the facility but declined to get involved because its goals are similar to BP's "A for Energy" program in which teachers receive grants to teach kids about alternative fuels.

The company has said it's devoting $8 billion over the next decade to development of alternative energy.

By then, Bishop hopes her young guests may be buying their first alternative-fuel or hybrid cars.

"Let's get the younger ones who are still receptive to new ideas," she said. "We're capturing them at an early age."

Mike Pryor, a volunteer chaperoning his son's class, also paid attention to the tour.

"It's actually better for me, I think, than for the kids," said Pryor, adding that he may eventually replace his van with a hybrid.