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The Green Pioneers: Clean Fuel is En Vogue

June 7th, 2008 by Max Gladwell · 5 Comments

Selling biodiesel in Brentwood and helping draft state legislation in Sacremento, Conserv Fuel partners Kristopher Moller and Rob Reed are fueling a shift to cleaner energy. By Ben Ehrenreich

Originally published in Men’s Vogue.

It was as good a day as Kristopher Moller could have hoped for, even in a part of Los Angeles where celebrity sightings are as common as Range Rovers and cloudless skies. Senator Barack Obama was in town. About 20 reporters clustered around one of the green and yellow biodiesel pumps at Moller’s new Conserv Fuel gas station in Brentwood, one of only a few stations in the city that sell the cleaner– burning alternative fuel. Secret Service agents kept the crowd of onlookers to the sidewalk. Standing in front of the cameras in a dark three–button suit, Moller, with a somewhat formal smile, looked less than comfortable. His grin broadened, though, when Obama, standing behind a plexiglass podium a few feet away, publicly thanked him in a smooth, deep, perhaps even presidential voice, “for taking the lead on saving our planet.”

By the next afternoon, the Obama campaign had moved on to San Francisco, and Moller, having traded Hugo Boss for surf shorts and flip–flops, stood beside his pumps with his business partner, Rob Reed, looking a lot more at ease. They’re a funny pair: Moller with longish hair, carved Nordic features, and a surfer’s tan; Reed more East Coast and buttoned–down. The story of how the two of them joined together to sell biodiesel—which produces dramatically less carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter than conventional fuel—could only have occurred in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, blending surfing, celebrity, environmental politics, and the old L.A. theme of apocalypse. “If we don’t act now,” Obama had warned the day before, “we know what the future will look like. We know there will be more droughts and more famines, more forest fires, more flooding.”

Moller, 31, grew up in the epicenter of automotive culture, and not just because he lived in freeway–enmeshed Southern California—his father, a Danish immigrant, owned a chain of over 150 independent gas stations. When Moller went to Columbia to get his master’s a few years ago, he studied energy policy. “I understood energy from the retail end, which is the furthest downstream, and I wanted to understand the bigger picture.” After graduating, he moved back West with a new interest in alternative fuels, and tried to convince his father to let him sell biodiesel at one of his stations. “There’s not enough hippies out there—it’ll never work!” Moller remembers his dad objecting. But the son prevailed, and with surprising success. He sold 4,500 gallons of biodiesel in a month at a Pacific Palisades station that had previously been selling 500 gallons of conventional diesel. Before long, he had expanded to four other stations.

Eventually, though, his father’s skepticism wore him down. “He convinced me that there was no future in biodiesel.” Moller took an office job with a developer friend of his dad’s. “It wasn’t me,” he laughs. On the evening of the second day of his new career in real estate, he ran into an old friend, surfing champion Kelly Slater. “He was like, ‘Hey, we’re all going to Fiji on Thursday. You should come with us. I’ve got this private island, and it’s the best surf in the world.'”

Moller’s new boss refused to give him the time off. He bought a ticket anyway. In Fiji, he was introduced to Julia Roberts and her husband, cinematographer Danny Moder, and he learned that they were involved in a campaign to switch the nation’s school buses to biodiesel fuel. (Highly carcinogenic diesel emissions are dramatically more concentrated inside school buses than immediately outside them.) The couple suggested that he meet Rob Reed, a mountain–biking buddy of Moder’s who had worked as a journalist before taking a job with the distributor of BioWillie, Willie Nelson’s biodiesel brand, and who had later collaborated with them on the school bus initiative.

Reed, Moller says, “got me fired up again.” The two were soon working with Dean Florez, a California state senator, helping to draft seven bills to push biodiesel in the state. Then this past May, when Moller’s father sold his company, Moller convinced him to sign over the lease for the Brentwood station. Before long, the pumps had been painted green and Conserv Fuel was born. “We want to be a sustainable, environmentally aware fueling company,” Reed chuckles. “It’s almost an oxymoron.”

Biodiesel, both agree, isn’t perfect. Emissions from the fuel, which can run in any diesel engine (Moller drives a 1980s Volkswagen pickup that gets at least 40 miles to the gallon), contain no less carbon dioxide than those of petroleum–based diesel, though the fact that soy and other oil–producing plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere may offset the damage in terms of global climate change. Plus, unlike petroleum, you can always grow more soybeans.

Moller and Reed hope to open more stations in California and beyond. “There are no biodiesel retailers in Manhattan,” Moller points out. “The market’s wide open.” They also plan to coordinate biodiesel fueling for touring musicians (Pearl Jam and Neil Young, among others, already insist on alternative fuel for their buses) and for eco–conscious manufacturers. “If it’s a so–called green product and you put it on a truck using diesel fuel,” Reed says, “you’re going backwards.”

Really moving energy policy forward, the pair agree, is still a long way off. For now, Moller frowns, “Our fuel has genetically modified soy in it, which we don’t like.” (Its production requires too much petroleum–based fertilizer.) “It’s really just less bad,” Reed nods. But for the time being, Moller says, “We have no alternatives.”

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Tags: Alternative Energy · Entrepreneurs