Hodgkins, IL — Many great ideas have been born from humble origins. Propel Fuels—a builder, owner and operator of self-serve renewable-fuel filling stations based in Redwood City, CA—sees a bright future for renewable fuels. In most areas of the country, the alternative-fuels market did truly sprout from modest beginnings. One such place was Seattle, where some of the area’s residents began making their own fuels in their garages out of common materials like recycled cooking oils from the local restaurants.
“We observed something happening in the Seattle market, a customer movement where people were doing it themselves and finding ways to sidestep using petroleum-based products,” said Chris LaPlante, Director of Marketing for Propel Fuels. “They relied on their cars, but they also wanted to do something different to reduce their impact.”
This grassroots movement caught the eye of Propel’s now CEO Matt Horton, who spent most of his career a venture capitalist where he gained experience in capital formation for early-stage “cleantech” companies. Putting that experience to work, Horton brought together a group of investors and in 2007 Propel Fuels was born.
“I saw this consumer-driven uprising, saw that the interest in using renewable fuels was there and wondered, how we could bring these fuels to everyone?” said Horton. “So we created a new kind of fuel company and business model for renewable fuels that allows us to do just that.”
That business model is built on providing drivers with easy access to high-quality clean fuels as away to “fuel change”. There are currently 21 Propel fueling sites in operation the majority running from San Jose through the Bay Area and up to Sacramento in California, and six in the Seattle area. The company is also in the midst of expanding into Southern California and, eventually, a national rollout. Propel’s “Clean Fuel Points” (stations) offer biodiesel and E85 ethanol products, with an eye towards other advanced fuels as new vehicle technologies gain traction.
“We had to make sure that the Propel brand integrated with the majors, then we developed co-location agreements that add value for the station owners that we partner with, so we work with a whole array of owner and operators,” said Horton. “This is a way for station operators to monetize unused space and maximize the value of their property. It brings a whole new range of customers to their site, drawing customers from a larger geographic footprint, and stepping into the next generation of fueling in a manner that is absolutely risk-free.”
But the ultimate goal of Propel is much more than convincing drivers to use renewable fuels as a way of lessening the burden on the environment. The company also wants to help its customers see the impact of making the change to cleaner fuels. They aim to do this through a program known as CleanDrive. Propel Fuels members who sign up for the CleanDrive program receive free, personalized emission reports which can show them how they are reducing their carbon footprint through the use of renewable fuels.
“When somebody buys a tank of gasoline, they don’t interact with it,” said LaPlante. “They might put 16 gallons of fuel into their car, but after that they don’t think about the impact that fuel has on our environment and economy. We wanted to show the connection between consumers’ fuel use and their decision to use renewables. CleanDrive allows people to have a connection with their fuel—to see how they have lowered their carbon profile, and see the barrels of imported oil they’ve displaced.”
To help get the CleanDrive program operational, Propel Fuels turned to OPW Fuel Management Systems and its FIT500™ Fuel Control System. The FIT500, which is equipped with OPW’s FSC3000™ Fuel Site Controller, is a PCI-compliant, self-contained fuel-island terminal that includes a dual-head card reader and customizable color screens that is integrated with a TCP/IP communication port to guarantee a high-speed connection to the network. The FIT500 is integral to the CleanDrive program because it works at the point-of-sale of unmanned fueling sites so that drivers can instantly link their Propel fuel purchases to their CleanDrive account.
“Overall, the Propel business model embraces unmanned fueling stations so we brought the cardlock fueling experience, to a retail-fueling environment,” said LaPlante. “We want to mimic the retail-fueling experience and we felt that the FIT500 interface allowed us to get very close to that. It allowed us to offer something out of the gate to go to market quickly and still provide a great fueling experience.”
OPW recently responded to Propel Fuel’s evolving needs with an upgrade to the system’s FSC3000 software package. That involved OPW’s Engineering Department working with Propel on some customer interface changes that allows CleanDrive to work more efficiently in a PCI-compliant world. OPW’s West Coast sales team also conducted special upgrade training classes for Propel’s technicians and operations team that helped create a plan of attack that resulted in the reprogramming of all 21 fueling sites. The FIT500 also supports Propel’s gift card/promotional card system that is used to drive new business and get drivers to try renewable fuels for the first time.
“OPW stepped up to train our technicians and installers on the ground so they were up to speed and ready to implement,” said LaPlante.
The ultimate goal of Propel—to make renewable fuels a part of the everyday lives of millions of people—is a lofty one. But, with the help of OPW Fuel Management Systems, the signs are there that minds (and habits) can be changed. In fact, the work of Propel received a boost in August when the company received a $10.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and California Energy Commission that will be used to build and operate 75 retail renewable fueling stations throughout California.
“Propel Fuels was built with a single purpose in mind—to create access to renewable fuels for everyone, and take renewable fuels mainstream,” concluded Horton. “We like the direction we are going in so far.”
For more informationon the FIT500™ Fuel Control System, contact OPW Fuel Management Systems at (708) 485-4200 or go to www.OPWglobal.com.
About OPW Fuel Management Systems
OPW Fuel Management Systems specializes in the design and manufacture of tank gauges and automated fuel control systems. OPW Fuel Management Systems is a business unit of OPW Fueling Components, the leader in commercial and retail fueling solutions worldwide.
Propel builds, owns and operates a network of Clean Fuel Points – green-built, self-serve filling stations providing convenient access to clean, American, renewable fuels. The company offers drivers and fleets a cleaner fuel choice that reduces carbon emissions, creates jobs and lowers America’s dependence on foreign oil. Propel has also developed CleanDrive™, the nation’s first integrated carbon emission reduction tracking platform. Propel operates a growing network of Clean Fuel Points in Washington State and California. More information is available at www.propelfuels.com.