Alternative car fuel arrives in Oakland

Propel Fuels

Tyree Hill, Jr., a professional driver, fills his Ford Taurus with FlexFuel.

Oakland drivers may want to take a closer look at their owner’s manuals this week.  The city’s first biofuels vending station opened Tuesday, offering fillups for any engine that can run using renewable alternatives to gasoline.

The station, operated by Propel Fuels, is in the Adams Point neighborhood, at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Perkins Street. Its opening marks biofuel’s first foothold in Oakland. To commemorate the occasion, Propel spent two days offering each new customer five free gallons of either the company’s ethanol-based “FlexFuel,” or biodiesel for diesel engines.

FlexFuel, also called E85, is a biofuel composed of roughly 85 percent ethanol, the remaining 15 percent being mostly gasoline.  According to Mark Prentice, a public relations representative for Propel, the materials required to produce FlexFuel are grown on farms and sent to refineries, all in the United States. Propel serves as a retailer of the finished product, which is currently selling in Oakland for $2.49 per gallon, around 80 cents less than the cost of most regular gasoline. Biodiesel was selling today for $3.19 per gallon.

The new station, a free-standing set of pumps on the edge of an existing Chevron franchise, attracted 30 to 40 new customers on each of its first two days. For drivers uncertain whether their vehicles were compatible with the biofuels on offer, a small marketing team was on hand to assist them. (Those wondering whether their own cars are compatible can visit Propel’s online guide).

Some drivers were surprised by what they learned. Adwan Shamasna, an area handyman who arrived in a dusty 1999 Ford Ranger, did not expect his truck to accept anything but conventional gasoline. But when a Propel representative learned from a detailed chart that the make, model and year of Shamasna’s truck would allow him to use FlexFuel, Shamasna said he might make a habit of fueling here. But his skepticism wasn’t entirely erased. “I want to just see how my truck handles it first,” he said.

Propel Fuels

A gallon of Propel's ethanol-based FlexFuel is 75 cents cheaper than a gallon of regular gasoline several feet away.

Others were more enthusiastic. Tyree Hill, Jr., who works in Oakland as a driver, said he tries to fill his Ford Taurus with FlexFuel whenever he is in range of a station, mentioning a cluster of them in the Sacramento area.  “It’s clean, it’s eco-friendly,” he said.  And his car “feels like it runs better” when using biofuel, he said. “I’m helping myself and the atmosphere,” Hill said. “I would love to see more of these stations around here.”

Propel is doing its best to bring that about. According to Prentice, the company sees itself as filling a gap in the fuel market. “The gas station is one of the last places to have consumer choice,” he said. “You’ve been able to get blue jeans sweat-free for years,” he said, referring to modern campaigns against sweatshop labor. “But gas has always just been gas.”

Propel, which recently moved its headquarters from Seattle to Redwood City, has been expanding its California operations rapidly since entering the state in January 2009. Stations similar to this one opened in Fremont and San Jose this summer, and a Berkeley station is expected to open within weeks.

Although Washington State, where Propel was founded in 2004, “is still very important to us,” said Propel marketing specialist Emily Shellabarger, “our focus is now on California. We are interested in building a network California-wide.”

According to Prentice, there are good reasons for a push in California. “There is an opportunity here in terms of supportive policies toward renewable energy and renewable fuels,” he said. Furthermore, he said that “there’s a huge market for renewable fuel folks” in the state, citing the culture of the Bay Area in particular.

Such advantages may help companies like Propel overcome the hurdles the company faces. Like Adwan Shamasna, the handyman, many drivers don’t realize their vehicles are equipped to run on anything besides conventional gasoline, and thus don’t seek out other kinds of fuel. Perhaps more fundamentally, the very scarcity of alternative fuel stations may prevent many drivers from seeking out those that exist.

Propel’s model of sharing space with an existing gas station is designed in part to address this problem. Besides the immediate advantages of proper zoning and existing infrastructure, sharing a lot with the local Chevron may make it easier for Propel to win new converts.  Many customers “have their gas station they’re used to going to, or they’re used to conventional gas stations,” Prentice said.  But by allowing people to get close enough to the new pumps to see how they work, partnerships between Propel and other gas stations “help drivers make the switch.”

In addition to luring drivers to its stations, Propel has tried to widen its niche through social networking. The company communicates with customers and seeks out new ones online by means of both a blog and a page on Facebook.

Whether or not stations like Propel’s reach the mainstream in the years ahead, this single, cheerfully green pump signals Oakland’s status as a proving ground. “We are looking at covering the whole state of California,” Shellabarger said. “And Oakland is central to our development.”

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One Comment

  1. Nice to see E85 and biodiesel options in California. Here in Minnesota, there are 350+ E85 stations statewide and 5% biodiesel (B5) in all diesel outlets.

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