SAN MATEO — Austin Mader-Clark used to feel like an outlaw whenever she went to fill up her car with biodiesel at a co-op in Pacifica.

"I had to drive down a dirt road, open a storage container, pop my hood and put jumper cables on my battery to make the pump work," said Mader-Clark, 45. "Basically, it felt like a drug deal."

And yet, Mader-Clark's experience typifies the lengths to which people will go to find biodiesel in the Bay Area — driving dozens of miles out of their way to pump used vegetable oil from a tank in someone's garage or a shed in the middle of nowhere.

Mader-Clark said she hopes to banish that feeling of marginality with Autopia Biofuels, her vision of what a biodiesel fueling station ought to be. Slated to open for business Monday, the San Mateo station will boast regular business hours, attendants, a friendly atmosphere and one of the biggest tanks of recycled vegetable oil in the Bay Area.

If biodiesel — a low-emissions fuel that can be used in a car's gas tank as an alternative to diesel — is to overcome its "hippie" stigma, it has to appeal to a broader audience, Mader-Clark said — including truck drivers, garbage haulers and bus companies.

"I want to get the 'greens' in their 1983 Mercedes Benz cars, but I also want to get people like me — soccer moms in their (Volkswagen) Jettas and Touaregs," she said.


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The simple, airy warehouse on South Railroad Avenue welcomes visitors with

a bright yellow floor and ample parking just off the Caltrain tracks, next to a row of car-related businesses. Autopia will eventually offer concessions for sale, mostly organic goodies from local vendors.

No membership is required, unlike the business model used for biodiesel co-ops, which rely on the commitment and dedication of a group of grass-roots founders. Such co-ops spring up and fade away at regular intervals across the Bay Area. They are mostly small neighborhood stations set up by "home-brewing" enthusiasts who mix together used kitchen grease, methanol and lye to create biodiesel.

Many of these filling "stations" operate underground, without a business permit, said Nancy Hall, the founder of Pacifica's recently defunct biodiesel co-op. When hers closed, so did a sister facility in Half Moon Bay.

"They tend to be run cooperatively by volunteers, and those kinds of organizations always come down to five or six people in the end. It's not very sustainable," Hall said.

The demise of the Pacifica co-op, however, is attributed to a different problem — the increasing price of soy oil, the basis of the "original" method for creating biodiesel, which involves large-scale soybean farming and processing plants across the United States.

Autopia's biodiesel won't come cheap, either. Mader-Clark obtains her used veggie oil from Blue Sky Bio-fuels in Oakland, a grease-collection service whose product wholesales for about $4.60 per gallon including taxes and delivery fees. Customers of Autopia can expect to pay between $4.90 and $5 per gallon as a result.

Nevertheless, Mader-Clark is confident Autopia will meet a growing wave of interest as one of only two legitimate biodiesel stations on the Peninsula.

"I'm getting phone calls and e-mails asking, 'When are you opening?' There's definitely a demand," she said.

For all the used vegetable oil available from restaurants in the Bay Area, refined biodiesel is in short supply. Berkeley's BioFuel Oasis is one of the most long-lived suppliers, with plans to open a full gas station at the corner of Ashby and Sacramento this spring. BioFuel Oasis also is the place where Mader-Clark, who used to work in a legal publishing house, took a series of classes in the business of selling biodiesel.

In San Francisco, Peoples Fuel Cooperative offers mobile fueling, while a single public pump exists in San Jose and one company has a station in Santa Cruz.

Pacifica plans to open a 3 million-gallon biodiesel production plant in 2009, but in the meantime, Peninsula customers stop off at MB Garage in San Mateo, which offers two small tanks with a limited amount of soybean-derived biodiesel. 

"I can't wait for her to open because I want to buy my biofuel from her!" MB Garage owner Janet Migliore said with a laugh.

"They'll do well," she added. "There's a ton of customers out there. People have 250-gallon tanks on their trucks and that's too big for me."

Mader-Clark said she looks forward to the day when biodiesel is offered alongside diesel and gasoline at regular fuel stations. Until then, she hopes other Bay Area residents concerned about tailpipe pollution will switch to biodiesel.

"The other biodiesel stations and I, we don't see each other as competition," she said. "We see each other as infrastructure."

To learn more about Autopia Biofuels, visit http://www.AtopiaBiofuels.com.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or julia.

scott@bayareanewsgroup.com.