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Old 08-31-2003, 07:14   #1 (permalink)
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U.S.A.:World's most advanced fuel station opens in San Diego

By Seth Hettena / Associated Press
Denis Poroy / Associated Press

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.

Or, at the ethanol pump, fuel 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, the 37-year-old West Virginian who manages the Regional Transportation Center, which offers gas, diesel and 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 Lewis calls the chicken-and-egg problem for alternative vehicles -- should alternative fuel stations spur sales of the vehicles or vehicles 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."

Alternative fuel stations are hard to come by. LPG, the most common gas alternative in California, is often found at welding supply stores, propane supply houses, U-Haul depots and a handful of gas stations. When it comes to natural gas, there are 110 stations open to the public in California, and only three in San Diego County, according to Mike Eaves of the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition.

"We're fighting the 900-pound gorilla that's on all the street corners," he said.

Consumers are creatures of habit, and it's 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, experts say.

Only about 67,500 out of 25 million registered vehicles in California used alternative fuels at the beginning of the decade, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Most are service vehicles used around airports, in local bus fleets or business, such as LPG-powered vehicles that deliver the Los Angeles Times.

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 nonpolluting 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," 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 Applebaum, a 41-year-old 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," he said.

(Photo)Regional Transportation Center attendant John Palma plugs a charger into a Think City electric car at the RTC in San Diego. At this fuel station of the future, attendants in white, 1950s-style uniforms hand customers a piece of Bazooka gum, clean the windshield, and offer to fill up the tank with gas -- or any of several other alternatives.
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