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BEHIND THE WHEEL

New Fuel Center Offers Full Menu of Alternatives

Although the 'green' choices are available at the San Diego facility, officials say increased awareness is needed to bring in customers.

September 23, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It was a simple movement, the kind made countless times at gas stations every day. But to Troy Rhoads, placing the silver nozzle of this particular fuel pump into the gas tank of his metallic Ford Ranger was just this side of revolutionary.

"Man, this feels just great," said Rhoads, 35, his eyes gleaming from below the bill of a red, white and blue "USA" baseball cap.

"Filling up my tank -- it's cheaper, I'm doing something good for the environment. And it's just good for the country."

Rhoads' fuel of choice was ethanol, an alternative fuel often made from corn. In this case it was made from scraps of cheese. He noted that the cost, $1.59 a gallon, was far lower than that for ordinary gas in San Diego.

The place where he filled up is far from ordinary.

Newly built and located in the City Heights district of San Diego, the Regional Transportation Center is a mecca for energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive "alternative autos."

The center has a nonprofit arm that promotes alternative autos, a dealership that sells them and a service shop that maintains them. (The center also bills itself as the West Coast's only licensed dealer for the Segway, the battery-powered people mover that looks like a pogo stick on wheels.)

Although a Segway rider always draws a crowd, the biggest novelty here is the gas station, which has three rows of pumps.

Two of the rows are standard-issue gas: regular to supreme and diesel, all of it derived from oil. But the third row of four pumps offers what state officials say is the widest variety of alternative fuels in one location in California.

In addition to ethanol, there's compressed natural gas, liquefied propane gas, ultra-low sulfur diesel and biodiesel, which is made from used French fry grease. A few feet away from the pumps is a line of 3-foot-tall electric chargers for battery-powered cars.

"We've just about got all of your fuel options covered," said Mike Lewis, 37, a former service manager at a nearby Ford dealership who runs the center. "When we started this, we wanted to give every fuel equal billing.

"We've done that. Now we've got to get more people interested in buying cars that use this stuff."

The Regional Transportation Center was conceived by Steve Bimson, a former marketing director at a San Diego Ford dealership. He'd been interested in the environment since dense brown smog hung over his 1950s childhood in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.

One day in the mid-1990s, Bimson sketched out a vision for the transportation center on a restaurant napkin, while talking to friends about how to promote alternative energy.

With money from Ford, individual investors and state, local and federal sources, Bimson raised $15 million to buy land near the freeway and construct the center, which opened in August.

"It's pretty much turned out the way I imagined," said Bimson, who asked Lewis to run the operation.

"Nobody knows what fuel is going to be the most popular one in the future. But no matter what, we will be ready to offer it to the public."

Problem is, the public isn't on board just yet.

Most people simply don't drive vehicles capable of handling alternative fuels like compressed natural gas, which powers cars with the same highly pressurized, clean-burning fuel that lights many kitchen stoves.

"There's still a major hill to climb," said Dan Fong, a transportation specialist with the California Energy Commission. "You have to have the cars and we don't have that yet in this state. But to get the cars, you have to convince people, and one of the major barriers has always been where to get the fuel. There's just not enough other options."

Consider the paucity of alternative fuel stations in car-crazy Los Angeles County, for example. According to CALSTART, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternative transportation technology, the county has just 29 places to buy compressed natural gas for vehicles, just four offering liquefied propane gas and nowhere to get ethanol. Many of the fuel stops are inconvenient locations like gas company parking lots -- places that don't appeal to consumers used to full-service gas stations.

Bimson believes the Regional Transportation Center will show private investors that more fuel stations can and should be opened. He argues that alternative fuels are poised to take advantage of the moment.

Regular gas prices are high. Many drivers are concerned about the effect their cars have on the environment, or about the nation's dependence on oil from the Middle East.

And despite the domination of regular gas guzzlers, California has long been a leader in the effort to boost sales of alternative vehicles.

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