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San Diego Drivers Consider Alternative Fuels

Evening Edition

Above: Gas prices unexpectedly roared into record territory in February. That surge forced San Diego drivers to consider their pocketbooks when refueling. It also has some drivers considering other ways to power their cars. KPBS Business and Environmental Reporter Erik Anderson says high gas prices are pushing up the value of alternative fuels.

Aired 4/2/12 on KPBS News.

Gas prices unexpectedly roared into record territory in February. That surge forced San Diego drivers to consider their pocketbooks when refueling. It also has some drivers considering other ways to power their cars.

— A worker at a Carlsbad eatery dumps a bowl of quartered tortillas into a fryer filled with hot oil. There is a rush of noise as the grease beings to cook the Mexican staple. It’s a process that happens at Casa de Bandini all day long.

San Diego Drivers Consider Alternative Fuels
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“As you can see, we go through a lot of chips here at Casa De Bandini,” says Gilbert Gastelum, Casa de Bandini manager. “We have a big vat that we make chips in. We go through about 32 five-gallon containers of oil a week.”

That used cooking oil has to go somewhere, so workers store it behind the restaurant in greasy square tank. The used oil sits there until Max Minahan rolls up in his Buster Biofuels truck. He uses the vehicle to collect oil from a number of different customers. It is a quick process.

“Go ahead open my bin up. Unlock it. Take the cap off the hose,” said Minahan, as he goes through the routine. “Run my hose back at the side of the building. Go ahead and get the oil.”

Max Minahan
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Above: Max Minahan

A screen on top of the vat catches and filters the oil, removing solid particles that are byproducts of the cooking process.

Minhan empties the vat of oil in a matter of minutes. He works for an Escondido start-up that collects used cooking oil. Filters it. Treats it. And turns it into bio diesel. The firm has a number of customers, including Legoland, a company interested in managing the environmental impact of the huge theme park.

“We have a variety of restaurants around the part that obviously produce grease through making the food,” says Crystal Kranz, park spokeswoman. “So we collect that and Buster Biofuels comes and picks it up to turn it into something usable.”

That something usable is biodiesel which then powers some of the smaller maintenance vehicles that help keep the park presentable for visitors.

Former professional skateboarder Buster Halterman is helping make that happen. He founded and runs Buster Biofuels.

“We’re using used cooking oil, which is a low value feedstock that we’re able to transform into biodiesel,” says Halterman, who hopes to build a facility that will be able to process all that used cooking oil. He currently has third party firms change the oil into fuel. Once it has been treated, the resulting biodiesel is ready for the fuel tank.

“Most diesel engines need little or no conversion whatsoever and it can literally be mixed with diesel fuel in any mixture,” says Halterman. “So there’s not a whole lot of infrastructure change with the existing fuels out there.”

Biodiesel blends are selling for as much as 30 cents a gallon less than regular diesel, but that can flip when the price of oil drops. Using bio fuels is not always a question of price, says Halterman. He likens it to buying organic food, where sometimes, doing the right thing costs more.

“You know, we can be highly competitive with petroleum diesel and when prices are this high it’s super appealing,” says Halterman. “The problem is our margins get squeezed when prices get much lower than they are right now, because we don’t do the volume that a petroleum companies do. So we need to thrive on higher margins.”

Higher gas and diesel prices are also fueling interest in other alternatives.

Pearson Fuels in City Heights
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Above: Pearson Fuels in City Heights

Like any fueling station, Pearson Fuels in City Heights was seeing regular traffic, even as the cost of gas and diesel soared. That’s because it is one of only a handful of stations that sell natural gas, ethanol, bio-diesel, propane and even electricity for cars and trucks.

“We’re selling substantially more of the alternative fuels than we were a month ago,” says Mike Lewis, Pearson Fuels General Manager. Fuel sales are price sensitive. Ethanol85 sales jumped from 250 gallons a day in February to 1,000 gallons a day in March.

“So a month later we’re doing four times as much,” says Lewis. “So what will happen if the price falls? We won’t sell 1,000 for very long but it’ll go down gradually and probably level off at a point above 250 where it started.”

The plateau always ends up being higher, according to Lewis.

“As much as people hate to see the price of gas go up, over the long run, it does force the choices that don’t have to be forced when gasoline is $2 a gallon,” says Lewis.

The average price of a gallon of gas peaked at close to $4.40 a gallon about a month ago. The record price of $4.64 was set in 2008.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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