Propel offers ethanol and biodiesel to Sacramento drivers as food-for-fuel debate continues
Rob Elam may drive an SUV, but don’t be fooled. He cares about the environment. That SUV of his runs on biodiesel.
As president of Propel, which operates the half-dozen green-and-white flex-fuel and biodiesel stations that have popped up across the Sacramento area recently, Elam wants to bring cheap, clean, locally made fuel to eco-conscious drivers.
“Our customers want the most sustainable, best available fuel,” he said. Propel approaches gas-station owners with locations where use of flex fuel and diesel vehicles is higher. To fulfill that demand, Propel builds fuel pumps with E85 and biodiesel options on the open space of existing gas stations, like the Shell station in Citrus Heights where Elam topped off his biodiesel SUV. Propel then builds, owns, manages and operates the fuel stations.
E85 is a mixture of 85 percent ethanol fuel—made from corn or other crops—and 15 percent gasoline. The biodiesel Propel sells is made from waste grease. E85 can be used in flex-fuel vehicles—vehicles that come equipped with yellow gas caps. Biodiesel can be used in just about any diesel engine.
Elam said that the idea behind Propel is to supply cleaner, more sustainable fuels that help wean the country from foreign, polluting petroleum.
A clean-burning sustainable fuel made right here in Sacramento? That’s got to be a good thing. Not according to professor Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis.
“It’s a bad thing,” Sumner insists. “Through a matter of government subsidies and trade barriers and mandates, it’s really jacked up the taxpayer contribution for shifting food to fuel.”
Last year, food riots in poor countries around the world drew attention to the “food for fuel” issue. Media outlets blamed the increase in government-mandated ethanol production for jacking up the price of corn around the world.
Elam disagrees with that assessment.
“I don’t think that ethanol had anything to do with the massive price spike of corn,” he said. “I think the facts show that the commodity spikes and the economic spikes were broad-based. Copper was the highest it’s ever been, petroleum was the highest it’s ever been, corn was the highest it’s ever been.”
He also points out that many energy industries get help from the government.
“Is ethanol subsidized as much as hydrogen fuel? Not even close,” Elam said. “Is it subsidized as much as the petroleum industry? Depends on if you count the Iraq war.”
Elam acknowledges that there are drawbacks to using E85; for example, lower gas mileage. While admitting that ethanol production has a way to go, he says that change has to happen now.
“We need to take this out of laboratories and out of ivory towers and empower the American consumer,” he said. “A pound of carbon saved today is more important than a pound of carbon saved in 2020.”
Biodiesel presents a more complex picture. Like E85, biodiesel can be made from a variety of food-crop sources. Some of the most common biodiesel sources include rapeseed and soybeans, again raising the food-for-fuel question. But the biodiesel supplied by Propel is made with waste grease. “It’s probably the most sustainable fuel available right now,” said Elam.
Elam got into the alternative-fuel business as a kind of home-brewing experiment when he lived in Seattle. As his operations grew and he went from co-op type distribution to selling biodiesel to car dealerships, he quit his day job and started Propel.
Currently, Propel owns a dozen fueling stations in Seattle and Sacramento. They plan to expand into the Bay Area, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and San Diego. Their goal is eventually to run 500 stations across the state.
Propel isn’t just interested in fuel, but in providing electric and hydrogen fuel-cell stations as those technologies become more feasible.
“I don’t think the electric vehicles or the hydrogen vehicles are quite there yet,” Elam said. “But they will be.”