Green power to the people

An environmentalist turns consumers on to alternative fuel
Matt Villano

"People walking by must think we're hiding a Burger King over here," jokes John Hushagen about what happens when his tree-care firm's trucks start up in the morning. "Little do they know that the smell signifies our commitment to promote alternative fuel."

Hushagen buys his fuel from Dan Freeman, owner of Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks (yes, that's how he spells it), who has cultivated a burgeoning business in biodiesel. It's a clean-burning alternative fuel produced from domestic, renewable, even edible plant sources such as soybeans and corn. Even when mixed with traditional petroleum diesel, it has significant environmental benefits and can deliver up to 50 miles per gallon.

In Seattle, through strong grassroots support and with the help of recent state legislation promoting its production and use, biodiesel has had particular success. Some of the Washington State ferries run on it. About 75 percent of Seattle's city-owned fleet of diesel vehicles use it. And at last check, nearly 950 individual customers had signed up for it too. Nationwide, more than 30 million gallons of biodiesel fuel were used in 2004, double the usage from just two years before.

"The biodiesel movement is as much about fuel as it is about lifestyle," says Freeman. "Most people use biodiesel with the idea of never relying on petroleum again."

Dr. Dan's began as a side business at Freeman's auto repair shop, but it wasn't long before biodiesel took center stage. Today, Freeman estimates that he sells about 11,000 gallons of pure biodiesel fuel every month. For roughly $3.50 a gallon ― about a dollar more per gallon than regular diesel fuel ― customers can swing by the modest shop on Northwest 50th Street and pump it themselves, or Freeman will deliver it straight to their home or business. Every fill-up comes free with the latest in biodiesel news; lucky customers might even get a mini lecture on the state of the industry from Freeman himself.

Energy issues are nothing new for 44-year-old Freeman. Growing up in Ballard during the fuel crisis of the 1970s, Freeman walked to school past cars stuck in long gas lines. In his 20s, he experimented with alcohol as fuel for his minibikes and participated in a club that raced cars on methanol at Skagit Speedway in Burlington.

In 2001, with biodiesel he still imports by train from Iowa, he founded Dr. Dan's. On a gray and soggy morning recently, a steady line of Volkswagen owners paraded past the makeshift pump outside his shop. They prepay for the fuel in 40-gallon increments, which allows them 24-hour access to it.

Dr. Dan's good work is catching on with corporate customers too. John Hushagen, owner of Seattle Tree Preservation in Lake City, Washington, switched from petroleum diesel to biodiesel in December 2002 and still powers his fleet of five trucks with the alternative fuel. In the morning, the idling motors give off a smell somewhere between french fries and onion rings. While Hushagen says he hasn't necessarily seen a cost savings with biodiesel, he is happy to be out of the "smog race," as he calls it, and supporting something that's good for the environment.

More Seattleites may follow Hushagen's lead. Washington has two new biodiesel refineries, and another three are in the works. And with federal grant-funded renovations planned for his shop, Freeman expects he'll be able to increase his capacity threefold within the year.

As regular gas prices continue to rise, Freeman is preparing for the day when the majority of automotive consumers request engines that can run on biodiesel. Stay tuned.

Info: Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks (www.fuelwerks.com or 206/783-5728)

A Low Fuel Lifestyle

While Dan Freeman extols biodiesel as the fuel of the future, consumers who aren't ready to take the plunge still can take steps to minimize dependence on fossil fuels.

• Choose wisely. Buy a low-emission vehicle that handles most of your daily tasks, instead of an oversize one that's equipped with tires and an engine you hardly ever need.

• Group errands. Don't make separate trips for coffee, laundry, and day care. Plan ahead so you can minimize your impact on the environment as you go about your errands.

• Buy local. It takes gas to import goods from other countries, so buying items made in the United States helps breaks the cycle of fuel dependence.

• Pedal away. The best way to minimize dependence on fuels is not to use them at all. Invest in a good bicycle and use it as much as possible. You'll be cutting down on gas consumption, and you'll get some exercise too.