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Are Gasoline Alternatives Fuel for a Revolution?

By Tomoeh Murakami Tse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, family-owned Cropper Oil & Gas is preparing to open the first commercial plant in the state that will produce biodiesel -- a biodegradable fuel derived from vegetable and animal fats. In Annapolis, the owner of a station selling ethanol fuel says sales are edging higher. And in Arlington, the Whipple family has purchased its second car that runs on natural gas.

Analysts say these are among indicators of an increase in local activity around alternative fuels and are part of a nationwide trend of more interest in different energy sources than at any other time in the past two decades.

But those who study the quest for alternative fuels are split over whether this recent spate of activity will lead to a focused and sustained effort to find new energy sources. They wonder if the forces at play are the start of an alternative-fuel revolution that will ultimately result in lower prices, fewer emissions and less dependence on foreign oil, or just a spasm of interest that will recede once gas prices fall.

"If you can put your finger on the one item that has prevented the alternative-fuel system from becoming really large in the United States, it's cheap gasoline," said Phillip J. Lampert, executive director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.

Since the oil crisis of the 1970s, the movement to find alternative energy sources has endured false starts, largely unable to maintain bursts of momentum from periods of public outrage about energy prices. Nevertheless, some experts and those who advocate alternative fuels are hopeful that as gasoline prices cross the $3-a-gallon threshold, a truly coordinated effort for new energy can seriously begin.

"We think there's real momentum behind it," said George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, created in 1974 after the oil crisis. "First of all, we don't expect oil prices to drop in the near future, and second of all, some of the technologies are very close to being cost-effective."

And with demand for oil growing in China and India, the "geopolitical situation has changed," said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a District-based nonprofit organization. "It's just simply not sustainable."

Along with the sense of urgency, Callahan and others said, are a public more aware and hungry for choices and an industry responding by adding more plants that produce alternative fuels and cars that can run on them. Vehicles must be equipped to run on high-ethanol fuels, but biodiesel in any blend can be used in any car that runs on diesel without significant alterations.

General Motors Corp. recently launched a campaign, "Live Green, Go Yellow," to raise consumer awareness of E85, a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, an alcohol-based gas additive that in the United States is made largely from corn. DaimlerChrysler AG has pledged to build 500,000 ethanol-fuel-ready vehicles annually, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said this week that it is considering selling E85 at the nearly 400 gas stations it operates in the United States.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co. is looking to expand a pilot program in Portland, Ore., that offers customers biodiesel-fueled Jeep Libertys. And even singer Willie Nelson has introduced his own brand of biodiesel made from soybeans. He calls it BioWillie.

More than 600,000 cars capable of running on alternative fuels have been produced each year since 2000, according to the Energy Information Agency. An estimated 5 million flex-fuel vehicles, ones that run on regular or alternative fuel, are on the road nationwide.

Among them are the vehicles driven by government employees and others that fuel up on biodiesel at the Cropper Oil & Gas in Berlin, Md. Co-owners James and Virginia Warren's belief in the alternative fuel was so strong that they invested $1.5 million to build the biodiesel plant, scheduled to come online in less than three weeks.

"We got no loans, no grants from the government," Virginia Warren said. "That's how much we believe in biodiesel."

The initial production capacity of the plant, which will use soybean oil from a local farm, will be 500,000 gallons a year; the company hopes to double that rate by the end of the year and eventually bring it up to 4 million gallons, Warren said.

With federal tax incentives, Warren hopes to make the price of B20 -- 20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent diesel -- competitive with regular diesel, which this week was selling at their station for $2.79.

But taken together, the various alternative fuels still represent a small fraction of the market. Wan Kang, owner of the Annapolis station that sells E85, says he sells only 150 gallons a day, though that's up significantly from the 20 gallons a day he sold when he added the pump in 2003. Although ethanol prices, held down by subsidies, are now competitive with regular unleaded gasoline at many pumps, E85 offers less mileage. Biodiesel blends can offer mileage comparable to diesel. A drawback: A higher-biodiesel blend will freeze in cold weather.

And many point to a shortage of fueling stations as an obstacle that must be overcome before the fuels can become more common. Many of the alternative-fuel vehicles on the road, analysts said, are flex-fuel vehicles whose owners are running them on regular gasoline because of the sparse infrastructure.

One morning this week, no more than a half-dozen cars pulled up to the natural gas, ethanol and biodiesel pumps open to the public at the Citgo station near the Pentagon. All of them were government or utility-company vehicles.

Walter Browder, manager of a Crown Petroleum station in Millersville, Md., that has a compressed-natural-gas pump, said that on a good day, he gets as many as five customers who are driving CNG-powered cars for personal use. "It's not what you call real popular," he said, adding that some are brought in by tow trucks after having run out of gas.

That has not kept the Whipples, owners of two natural-gas-fueled vehicles, from driving them.

This summer, Thomas Whipple, a retired employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, and his wife, Mary Margaret, a state senator, plan on taking a trip to Canada in their Honda Civic, purchased used last year.

Unlike their first alternative-fuel vehicle, which can tap into a gasoline tank with the flick of a button, the Civic runs solely on CNG. While they have a system at home that allows them to compress the natural gas from the pipes outside their house and fuel up in their own driveway, driving long distances poses some risk.

Because CNG cannot get the kind of mileage gasoline can, Thomas Whipple said, they gave up the trunk space and added a second tank; the car can go about 400 miles now.

"Once you get to Canada, it's not a big deal. Getting across Pennsylvania is a bit more difficult," Thomas Whipple said. "There is one station in the middle of Pennsylvania. I'll just give the guy a call ahead of time to make sure the pump is not broken or anything."

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