Rolling up to the pump, you realize this isn’t your father’s Amoco station—or Chevron or Exxon, for that matter. What it is: One company’s vision of choice and change for an industry that’s been slow to facilitate either.
The lush, “living” rooftop on the SeQuential Biofuel station is just one of the giveaways that this is no ordinary gas station. The labels on the fuel pumps are your confirmation. At this unique fueling stop in Eugene, Oregon, just off the heavily trafficked I-5 corridor, you can choose from a selection of domestically produced fuels—blends of biodiesel and ethanol for use in any diesel or gasoline engine.
This futuristic filling station has been abuzz with activity since its grand opening in September 2006, serving 400 to 700 customers a day who come to fuel up their cars with eco-fuel and their bodies with natural snacks from the store—fair-trade coffee, natural sodas, and seasonal organic produce.
Although it’s been somewhat of an overnight sensation, founders Ian Hill, Tyson Keever, and Tomas Endicott point out that the station was more than two years in the making. And their interest in renewable transportation has an even longer history.
A college independent study project sparked Ian’s interest in clean energy and renewable fuels while he was working on a degree in environmental science at the University of Oregon in 1999. But it wasn’t until he lost his pickup truck from “an incendiary demise during a road trip to California” that he started to more seriously consider renewably powered transportation.
“I upgraded my bicycle, and then spent the next six months researching electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, car sharing, public transportation, and alternative fuels,” says Ian. At the end of it all, he says, biodiesel appeared as the only option that met his criteria of being affordable and available.
In 2000, though, the only commercially available biodiesel in Oregon was prohibitively expensive, and had to be ordered and shipped in 5-gallon containers. So Ian took matters into his own hands, purchasing what many renewable-fuel enthusiasts consider the biodiesel bible—Josh Tickell’s From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank—and investing the remainder of his insurance settlement from his truck-fire debacle into some home-scale biodiesel processing equipment and two identical 1982 Volkswagen diesel Vanagons. With some cooking oil collected from a local Italian bistro and other restaurant haunts, Ian and his longtime friend Tomas Endicott began brewing biodiesel in Ian’s garage.
Word of Ian and Tomas’s grassroots fuel-brewing adventures spread quickly throughout the small Eugene community, and they began to receive requests to present workshops at local events. Soon, Ian and Tomas, along with a handful of other friends, had formalized their homegrown interest into Eugene BioSource, and developed an informational Web site, traveled the local lecture circuit, and continued to make biodiesel for their own vehicles.
One year later, Tomas’s brother Josh joined the group to help them investigate the viability of commercial biodiesel production. While Josh and Ian built a business case for a commercial biodiesel production facility in Oregon, commercial quantities of biodiesel manufactured from U.S.-grown soybeans became available in Portland. After striking a deal with another company to market blends of biodiesel, Ian, Tomas, and Josh became equal partners and registered their biodiesel distribution business in Oregon as SeQuential Biofuels LLC. “The capital ‘Q’ in the name is a symbol that represents ‘source’ or ‘the sun,’” says Ian, “and the concept of ‘sequential’ connotes forward progress and change.”
Their biodiesel business boomed, attracting government fleet contracts including the City of Eugene and Crater Lake National Park, and their wholesale market for B20 (20% biodiesel blended with petro diesel) quickly expanded beyond the Oregon borders. At the same time, SeQuential’s requests for bulk deliveries of B100 were picking up—so much that, in 2003, they purchased an F250 diesel pickup and trailer, equipped with a 1,200-gallon tank and state-certified pump for on-road sales.
Tomas opened a SeQuential office in Portland, and soon SeQuential-branded B100 and B20 pumps were popping up all over the city. In Eugene, the original delivery truck continued to be the primary retail dispenser of B100, but business was beginning to pick up there too, and Ian seized the opportunity to grow the company and its sustainability goals.
Ian says that he and Tomas had talked extensively about creating better options for “walking the talk,” specifically taking responsibility for the impact that each individual’s actions have on the environment, community, and economy. “Energy use has such huge ramifications where economics and the environment are concerned,” says Ian. “We wanted to offer customers the choice to use environmentally friendlier fuels that create jobs and greater prosperity for both urban and rural communities in the Pacific Northwest.”
Their vision? Create an experience that would draw the average person into the renewable energy movement, as well as offer renewable fuel products that work seamlessly with the existing fueling infrastructure and vehicles. The result: The first full-fledged service station in the United States to offer only bio-blended fuels.
One of the biggest hurdles, Ian says, has been customer education. “About 97% of all passenger vehicles in the United States are gasoline-powered, and we’ve had to educate customers who drive gasoline vehicles that they can fuel up with E10 gasoline (10% ethanol) without harming their cars,” says Ian.
“The irony is that many Portland-area drivers may be unaware that a small amount of biofuel is already blended into their fuel. For 15 years, the city’s air quality standards have required that as much as 7.8% bioethanol be blended into all gasoline sold during the winter months.” In 2006, the City of Portland passed a renewable fuels standard (RFS) that requires all gasoline in the city to contain at least 10% bioethanol and all diesel in the city to contain at least 5% biodiesel. The Oregon State Legislature passed a bill with similar provisions on July 3, 2007. Beginning February 1, 2008, all on-road gasoline in Oregon will contain 10% ethanol.
With the demand for biofuels increasing, Ian and Tomas say that another critical challenge for them is ensuring that this call is met with sustainable biofuels production. “Although biofuel production can be done in a positive, responsible way,” says Ian, “it can also be done in a way that produces negative economic, social, and environmental impacts.” He cites the trend to use imported palm oil from the tropics as a biodiesel feedstock as an example. Some countries are razing their rainforests and replacing them with palm oil plantations to meet the demand for fuel feedstock, leaving sustainability proponents to question whether biobased fuels are really a sustainable solution.
SeQuential’s Salem-based biodiesel production facility, a joint venture with Pacific Biodiesel of Maui, Hawaii, predominately processes used cooking oil collected from restaurants and food processors throughout Oregon and Washington, and they are aiming to offer only Oregon-made biodiesel at the station in the next year. Although part of their bioethanol feedstock supply currently comes from the Midwest, they also source ethanol from the Pacific Ethanol facility in Boardman, Oregon, to support more regional supplies.
“Perhaps the greatest positive impact of biofuels produced in the United States from U.S.-grown crops is that the money spent to purchase and consume biofuels stays in the pockets of businesses and farmers here,” says Ian.
Ironically, Ian points out that because the present scale of energy consumption in the United States is so massive, “no matter what ‘alternative’ fuel or energy sources we develop, energy insecurity and pricing volatility are going to be problems in the years ahead,” and concedes that the most sustainable choice has less to do with fuel and more to do with vehicles.
“The most sustainable fuel is that gallon that’s never used,” says Ian. “Using less fuel by choosing vehicles with higher fuel efficiency is the most significant thing that we can do, and driving diesel passenger vehicles and gasoline hybrids that get 45 mpg or more could go a long way to improving the situation.”
And yet he still harbors hope for the future of biobased fuels, and believes that SeQuential’s approach, which introduces products that work with an existing infrastructure and fit within a more sustainable environmental and economic framework, will “also lead the country in the direction of SeQuential’s long-term sustainable goals—fostering a strong domestic and regional economy and exceptional environmental quality.”
Sound like lofty goals in the face of growing energy crisis? Maybe, but that’s what fueling a revolution is all about.
Claire Anderson, Home Power’s managing editor, is still holding out for her dream wheels: a hybrid biodiesel-electric pickup. In the meantime, she relies on her trusty station wagon or veggie-oil-fueled F250 truck to make trips into town.
SeQuential Biofuels • www.sqbiofuels.com
Energy Design • www.solarenergydesign.com • PV system installer