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Originally published June 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 29, 2008 at 1:53 PM

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Sunday Buzz

Boeing gets a taste of Southern ribbing

There were some encouraging signs this month in Boeing's quest to recapture the much-disputed Air Force tanker contract. But the tongue-in-cheek billboard...

There were some encouraging signs this month in Boeing's quest to recapture the much-disputed Air Force tanker contract.

But the tongue-in-cheek billboard alongside Interstate 65 in Mobile, Ala., is not one of them.

"We would like to offer Boeing a finger," it reads.

Will Fusaiotti, the owner of four Foosackly's Chicken Fingers restaurants in Mobile, says his humorously defiant sign struck a chord in the city.

The Mobile area, which has about 500,000 people, stands to gain about 1,500 aerospace jobs if Los Angeles-based Northrop-Grumman and its European partner EADS build two plants there to fulfill the estimated $40 billion contract.

But the planned groundbreaking was postponed after the Government Accountability Office on June 18 issued a sharp critique of the Air Force contract award to Northrop.

The slogan Fusaiotti put up the next day on a readerboard at one store quickly escalated into the 48-foot digital sign by the freeway, stories in the local media, then bumper stickers and T-shirts.

"It has taken on a life of its own," says Fusaiotti. "I got a request for 800 bumper stickers from one place — I don't know if I can meet that."

"We printed 60 shirts and went through those yesterday, and we printed 300 today," he said Thursday as he prepared to take a batch of T-shirts to the post office.

Fusaiotti says he's gotten a few complaints that his sign is "off-color," but even the response from Boeing partisans has been good-natured — and there are T-shirt orders from boeing.com addresses.

All the publicity has not given sales of chicken fingers a helping hand, though.

"Our business has been about the same," he says.

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Mobile went ahead with a previously scheduled economic-development parade June 20. The parade included several Mardi Gras floats, according to the Mobile Press-Register, as well as a car from which Northrop-Grumman employees threw special beads featuring the company's KC-45 refueling tanker.

The tanker uncertainty has "let some of the air out of the balloon," as Fusaiotti puts it, but the city still is celebrating the recent opening of a ThyssenKrupp steel plant and expansion at a local shipyard. And Mobile's University of South Alabama will field its first football team this fall.

So even if the tanker contract doesn't go their way, says Fusiaotti, "It's kind of a new age in Mobile — there's a lot to look forward to."

Propel Biofuels revs up flagship station

Propel Biofuels finally has its name — or at least, its biodiesel prices — up in lights. Not on Broadway but on Seattle's Broad Street.

Last Friday the budding biodiesel emporium opened its first stand-alone station at the corner where Westlake Avenue North meets Broad and Valley streets in South Lake Union.

The green-themed structure will serve as Propel's flagship — and as a rallying point for the cause of biodiesel amid a toughening economic environment for the vegetable fuel's makers and retailers.

"We expect this site to have a high volume of sales, as it's in one of the busiest intersections in the city," says Propel Chief Executive Rob Elam.

The site will sell a blend of 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent petroleum diesel known as B5; it also sells B20, which has more biodiesel. On Friday, B5 listed for $4.89 a gallon and B20 for $4.97 a gallon — in the range of petroleum-diesel prices reported by the Web site seattlegasprices.com.

B5 is "a great gateway drug" for biodiesel because it quells uncertainties about the fuel's performance among first-time users, Elam says.

Data from the Washington Department of Licensing indicate that biofuel sales have plummeted since last year.

Costs for raw material have risen, pushing up prices and squeezing profits.

Critics have gained more ground on blaming biofuels for higher food prices and not being as good for the environment as advertised.

Local biodiesel makers like Imperium Renewables have resorted to exporting the fuel to European markets to stay afloat.

But Propel, which launched its first biodiesel pumps last October, says its biodiesel sales remain strong.

The company's Clean Drive program, which allows customers to keep track of their purchases and calculates their vehicles' emissions, has more than 300 members.

"Our sales have been growing every month since October," Elam says.

Nevertheless, the challenging environment means Propel is "rolling out (new locations) a little bit more slowly and thinking a little bit more deeply," he says.

— Ángel González

City Light, others test plug-in hybrids

While most of the world eagerly awaits the release of plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt, the city of Seattle has been playing with its own electric car since late May.

Powered by a 160-pound lithium-ion-nanophosphate battery, the modified Toyota Prius achieves over 100 miles per gallon during short city trips. When not driven by city employees, the car sits — recharging — next to a wall outlet in a city lot. Its rear lights turn on while it charges, kind of like an electric toothbrush.

Seattle's very own plug-in is part of a larger project jointly supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Idaho National Laboratory, Seattle City Light and V2Green, a local company.

The goal is to figure out whether they make economic sense. Some 13 vehicles, distributed among several local agencies, will be monitored for a year.

Every trip is fully recorded. A V2Green device sends data about the car's performance to scientists at the Idaho lab.

Seattle City Light expects to learn when and how fast the cars charge, and how they're used on a daily basis — knowledge that could help the utility plan for 2010, when plug-ins are expected to reach the consumer market.

"This will be very valuable for trying to determine how we'll accommodate this need in the future," said Lynn Best, the utility's director for environmental affairs.

"It's one small step for us to make a difference in the battle against global warming," said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. "We're asking people to watch us make this experiment work and to join us in plugging in, driving clean and getting moving."

To help push the limits of the technology, the utility will assign its allotted plug-in vehicles to the three individuals who "drive the most miles as part of their job," says spokesman Scott Thomsen.

"If we can put it through that kind of wringer it would really show the validity of this technology as an option," he adds.

Right now it costs about $10,000 to convert a Prius into a plug-in roadster, using technology developed by A123Systems, a Boston-area firm. The battery, more powerful than the factory-installed Prius version, reportedly gives the vehicles a 30- to 40-mile range on electric power. Last Thursday, a 5-mile trip between City Hall and South Lake Union and back consumed about a quarter of the charge.

— Ángel González

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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