Now in the Bay Area: the anti-gas station

The smell of french fries wafts from the local 'gas' station. But it's not the snacks sold inside, it's the fuel.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With gas over $3.50 a gallon here in California, many station owners must be relieved to have pumps with credit card readers. Better to cut out all interaction with the sullen customers.

But Jennifer Radtke has just one ancient pump, prices a few pennies above her competition, and lines that occasionally stretch over an hour long in this quiet corner of Berkeley. Yet customers clearly love the place, doubling the business each year and making possible a major expansion this summer.

How? She offers biodiesel, an alternative fuel that soothes so many environmental and political bugaboos it may some day edge out lattes as the Left Coast's favorite liquid.

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"Everything about [biodiesel] is really incredible. It's nontoxic, nonflammable, it's made from vegetable oil," enthuses Ms. Radtke, who jointly owns and runs BioFuel Oasis with five other women. For her, biodiesel is about a feeling of independence more than politics. Oh, and it "smells great."

The fumes around BioFuel Oasis evoke French fries or donuts – foods that may be for sale at some gas stations, but somehow wouldn't fit here among the organic tangerine juice and the local artwork that proclaims, "Trees are wiser than you think."

As much as BioFuel Oasis fosters an alternative, anti-gas station community, their product is rapidly joining the mainstream. It's the fastest growing alternative fuel in the nation, with production tripling last year, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Their website, biodiesel.org, lists roughly 1,000 retailers, most of them in middle America.

The fuel can be put safely into many diesel vehicles without modifications, though cold weather or older parts may require the use of biodiesel that's blended with petroleum diesel.

For Oasis customers, one of the biggest selling points is that the fuel comes from a potato chip factory in southern California, not the Middle East.

"Pretty much every time I went to buy gas, I thought about what was going on in Iraq, and I was feeling awful," says Aimee Wells, as she fuels up her VW Gulf, a diesel car she bought last year so she could switch to veggie power. A bumper sticker on it reads, "Biodiesel: no war required."

Ms. Wells also fills up an extra 15 gallons inside jugs in her trunk. She's driving down to Los Angeles and wants to have enough for the round trip. If she happened to run out, she could always fill up with conventional diesel: There is no danger in mixing.

Other customers extol biodiesel's environmental virtues. Andy Brucker of El Cerrito drives an F-250 truck for his construction work. He says he's paying the $3.70 a gallon mainly to help reduce global warming gasses.

Biodiesel emits 78 percent less CO2 than petroleum diesel, among other substantial drops in carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particulates, according to a report from the US Department of Energy. However, other research suggests that greenhouse-gas cuts could be dramatically reversed if demand for vegetable oil changed land use. So far, corn and soy are grown for animal and human food, with an abundance of oil as a byproduct.

"It wouldn't be economical to grow either soy or corn if it was only going to be used for fuel," says Michael Briggs, a professor with the University of New Hampshire's Biodiesel Group. "There's this notion that fuel crops are going to displace food crops, which isn't going to happen."

The visibility of "french fry fuel" is on the rise here. San Francisco last week opened its first commercial biodiesel station, and the mayor says the city's fleet of diesel vehicles will switch to biodiesel by year's end.

This summer, BioFuel Oasis will move to a new Berkeley location with two pumps with two nozzles each.

"We're taking a historic gas station and bringing it into the 21st century," says Radtke. The new station will have solar panels, grow plants on trellises around the pumps, and sell urban farming equipment. "We're transforming a fueling station and making it really cool and sustainable and environmental."

Part of the six businesswomen's mission will be – ironically – to get customers to use less of their product. They post information about how to maximize fuel efficiency and carry material about biking.

One enthusiastic customer has taken biofuels a step further. Philippe Monin shelled out $1,500 to convert his car to take straight vegetable oil, or SVO. He swings around once a week to local restaurants and gets their used frying oil for free. If it's from a Japanese restaurant, he notes, the car exhaust can smell like tempura.

He recalls making the switch after hearing about record profits by the oil industry.

"I said, 'No more.' I can't give them more money," says Mr. Monin. Now he doesn't pay a dime to fuel his vehicle and laughs as he drives past gas stations. "I see the price going up almost every day, and I just buzz by. I wave and say, 'Bye!' "

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