- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

SAN DIEGO (AP) — At a just-opened fuel station, attendants in white, 1950s-style uniforms clean customers’ windshields and offer to fill their tanks with biodiesel made from fish-fry grease.

Or, at the ethanol pump, fuel made from waste scraped off the floor of a cheese plant.

Batteries for electric cars may be charged at no cost. Natural gas and liquefied propane gas, or LPG, both popular, are available as less-polluting gasoline alternatives.

“No one has ever put all of these in one place,” said Mike Lewis, 37, the West Virginian who manages the Regional Transportation Center, which offers gas, diesel and six alternative fuels.

The station, which opened in early August, hasn’t been seeing a steady flow of customers for the exotic combustibles. The No. 1 fuel at the station of the future is plain old gasoline.

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 non-polluting 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.

But consumers are creatures of habit, and it is difficult to beat the ease or convenience of the nation’s vast network of gas stations. Last year, Californians used about 15 billion gallons of gasoline, more than a tenth of total U.S. demand. While drivers grumble about prices, a gallon of gas in 2002 cost less on average than it did 20 years earlier, when adjusted for inflation.

Low gas prices have discouraged the market for alternative vehicles, analysts say.

Also confusing the issue are the variety of alternative-fuel choices. California’s Air Resources Board, which imposed the zero-emissions mandate in 1990, is debating what should power the non-polluting cars of tomorrow. The board initially favored battery-powered cars, but now likes the future of hydrogen fuel cells. But hurdles remain — namely, high costs and concerns about distribution.

Rather than try to pick the fuel of the future, the Regional Transportation Center decided to offer as many as possible until a clear winner emerges.

One customer, Derek Applebaum, pulled into the center recently in his old gas-powered Dodge pickup.

“It’s incredible that somebody’s even doing it,” Mr. Applebaum said. “Everybody’s so afraid to take a chance like this, especially when you’ve got the influence of oil companies.”

A week later, he returned to buy a Ford Explorer that runs on ethanol or gasoline.

“I want to do my part for clean air and get off the Middle East oil dependence,” said Mr. Applebaum, 41, a bar owner who lives nearby. “The best thing I can do in my circle is buy an alternative-fuel vehicle. I guess I am their dream customer.”

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