Matt Horton wants to solve a problem that makes alternative-fuel vehicles unappealing to would-be buyers: lack of convenient places to refuel. Last month, the chief executive officer of Propel Fuels opened the country’s first station where drivers can pump gasoline, ethanol, and biodiesel, cyclists can get tune-ups, and commuters can find public transit schedules. Backed by more than $19 million in venture capital and nearly $12 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission, the 23-person Redwood City (Calif.) startup received yesterday an additional, $10.1 million grant from the commission to help build 100 stations around the state in the next four years.
With its alternative-fuel pumps at about two dozen other stations, Propel is laying the foundation for what the 37-year-old Horton calls the “slow, but exciting” transformation of the U.S. automotive industry. Despite increased consciousness about their benefits, roughly only 3,100 of the 160,000 filling stations across the country sell alternative fuels, according to the Department of Energy. “The gasoline stations don’t want a competitor but the alternative fuels industry is dependent on its largest competitor as a pathway to the market,” says Geoff Cooper, vice president of research and analysis at the Renewable Fuels Association. “In many cases, you aren’t going to see a retailer take a gasoline pump out of commission to put in a product that competes with gasoline.”