Fill it up with french-fry grease

A San Diego gas station offers electricity, ethanol, and biodiesel. Oh, yes, regular too.

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You may catch a whiff of cooking grease at the most environmentally friendly gas station in the world, but don't blame the smell on the doughnut shop across the street. The odor comes from pumps 9 and 10, which dispense "biodiesel" fuel made from the sludge that lurks in deep fryers everywhere.

Just a few feet away, you can fill 'er up with electricity or ethanol fermented from the leftovers of cheese production. Got a lactose- intolerant car? Visit the adjoining showroom and check the selection of alternatively fueled Ford vehicles. Or drop by the nonprofit education center and learn why you should bother worrying about the environment in the first place.

In all, the 90,000-square-foot Regional Transportation Center is a $15 million gamble on the eventual demise of unleaded gasoline (still available from pumps 1 to 8.)

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"There are huge market forces that inevitably make us win the bet. Undoubtedly, we will run out of oil in this world," says general manager Mike Lewis. "The thing that's unknown is the timing. Whether this will happen this year or in five decades is to be determined."

For now, Mr. Lewis is just happy that the monster gas station, the brainchild of a nearby Ford dealership, is finally open after more than six years in the works, more than three of them tied up in red tape.

"It's much easier from a regulatory, permitting, and design-review perspective to build a good, old-fashioned gas station that sells gasoline and diesel," Lewis says.

The plan is to make money by resolving the dilemma of which needs to come first - cars that can use alternative fuels or gas stations that sell more than gasoline. "We decided to build the chicken and the egg in one place," says Lewis.

And which of the fuels on offer is best equipped to promote clean skies, healthy trees, and fuller pocketbooks? The diplomatic Lewis is mum on the subject. "We're fuel-neutral," he says. "We want to be the ethanol mecca, the natural-gas mecca, the biodiesel mecca, and the electric-vehicle mecca."

He'll need plenty of patience to make his dream come true. While California's aggressive antipollution laws are inspiring other states, carmakers have bypassed state laws that tried to force them to produce more alternatively fueled cars.

The much ballyhooed electrical cars have turned out to be a flop, and General Motors has stopped making them. Natural gas and propane, meanwhile, haven't made much of a dent outside of buses and fleet vehicles.

But there are signs of change. Ethanol - also known as grain alcohol or just alcohol - is rapidly making its way into ordinary gas tanks in the Golden State. To comply with the federal Clean Air Act, refiners in California are pulling an oxygenizing agent known as MTBE out of gasoline in the state.

They're supposed to replace all the MTBE with ethanol by the end of this year. "The market is here, and now folks are waking up to the opportunity," says Neil Koehler, director of the California Renewable Fuels Partnership, a coalition of alternative-fuel manufacturers and environmentalists.

Indeed, stand-alone ethanol (blended with a bit of gasoline to keep people from drinking it) may soon become the undisputed king of alternative fuels in California. It's already popular in the Midwest, where enthusiastic support from farmers have turned the fuel - mostly fermented from corn, not cheese - into a multibillion- dollar business.

An estimated 200,000 cars and trucks in the Golden State are "hybrids" that can run on ethanol instead of gasoline, although many of their owners probably don't know that because there has been no place to buy ethanol. In fact, the San Diego gas station's ethanol dispenser is reportedly the only one west of Salt Lake City.

"The problem has been that there's no fuel distribution," Mr. Koehler says. "The oil companies aren't terribly motivated to supply the fuel, and the ethanol industry has been pretty infantile in California."

The immediate goal is to build enough ethanol fuel pumps so that a driver could travel from the Mexican border to Oregon and never have to switch back to regular unleaded gas, he says.

So far, however, the ethanol pump at the San Diego gas station has received little attention from customers. Most pull up to the unleaded gasoline pumps or turn to the two types of environmentally friendly diesel fuel - low-sulfur and biodiesel, the kind made from recycled cooking grease.

David Kutnock, a water-quality tester filling up his 1985 Mercedes Benz with biodiesel, is one such customer. "It would be nice to go off our dependence on oil," he says, before considering a more pressing matter - the appetizing smell that might start coming out his exhaust pipe.

"Everybody will be pulling into McDonald's after me, saying 'French fries sound good right about now.' "

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