If the United States is going to end its addiction to oil, the filling station of the future might look like Pearson Ford Fuel Depot in San Diego.
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 including ethanol, propane and 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 has 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% ethanol and 15% gasoline that can be used in a number of models that already roll from U.S. assembly lines.
Motorists who filled up recently had a variety of reasons for using the alt-fuel oasis: helping the environment, keeping their money in the United States and just seeing how their vehicles ran on a different fuel.
Retiree Karl Evans 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 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 oil from the Middle East are drawing more attention to alternative fuels that can be produced domestically and sold for less than oil and that generate lower greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the most promising is E85, a corn-based fuel known for getting fewer miles per gallon but having higher octane, resulting in more horsepower.
The fuel works in more than 30 models, including the Yukon sport utility vehicle from General Motors, 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% of overall sales, Lewis said.
On June 5, regular unleaded gas was selling for $3.29 a gallon, compared with $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 the use of gasoline. At one exhibit, EcoCenter executive director Judy Bishop explains that drivers of electric-gas hybrids such as the 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 had 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 was impressed with the facility but declined to get involved because its goals were similar to BP's A+ for Energy program in which teachers receive grants to educate kids about alternative fuels.
The company has said it will devote $8 billion over the next decade to the development of alternative forms of energy.
By then, Bishop hopes her young guests will 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."