At a Cascadia Center conference last week on the future of transportation titled "Beyond Oil," the star was the electric car. Electric vehicles and plug-in Priuses, converted SUVs, even a plug-in yellow school bus.

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At a Cascadia Center conference last week on the future of transportation titled “Beyond Oil,” the star was the electric car.

Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids were lined up outside the Microsoft Executive Conference Center during the two-day conference: plug-in Priuses, converted SUVs, even a plug-in yellow school bus.

True believers on grid-powered vehicles happily exchanged factoids inside. In such a crowd, Rob Elam, founder of Propel Biofuels, stuck out like a sore thumb.

Elam’s Seattle company is in the down-and-dirty business of distributing biodiesel, an alternative fuel made mostly out of vegetable oil that can be used in almost any standard diesel engine.

Biofuels, now based mostly out of soy and corn, have been criticized for not being cost-efficient — and some scientists have even cast doubt on their environmental benefits.

Others point out that biofuels are merely a halfway measure on the way to electric cars. That didn’t keep Elam from telling fans of electric vehicles that biofuels are the right thing to adopt, right now.

In the U.S., there are about 14 million diesel vehicles and 9 million flex-fuel vehicles that can run on biodiesel and ethanol, Elam told the audience.

“Both of these sectors are increasing faster than plug-in or electric cars,” he said. “We see that market as the largest, most obvious and practical place” to begin reducing greenhouse gases, he said.

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in an early stage of development. And when they do hit the market, they’re likely to account for a large quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, since a major portion of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired plants.

More efficient biofuels derived from experimental crops like algae could be the solution to wean people off fossil fuels, he said.

Andy Frank, a professor at University of California, Davis, the first proponent of hybrid plug-in vehicles, said the transition to electricity-powered fleet is already starting.

Toyota and GM are about to launch their first mass-market plug-ins.

“Battery technology is here and good enough,” he said.

But electrification is not entirely incompatible with biofuels. Plug-in hybrids could run on a mix of biofuels and electricity, he said, and be the cure to the world’s addiction to oil.

— Angel Gonzalez

Unveiling the

mystery tower

A new proposed high-rise hotel-condo tower in downtown Seattle was unveiled last week — in an odd way.

Two penthouse units at 1012 First Ave. were advertised on the Northwest Multiple Listing Service for presale at $1.75 million apiece — in a building that not only hasn’t broken ground but hasn’t even begun to seek city land-use and building permits.

“We’re not finding anything in our systems, and senior planning staff are unaware of this project,” Department of Planning and Development spokesman Alan Justad said in an e-mail.

There’s plenty of detail in the listings, however: They talk of a 35-story tower, designed by New York architect Ismael Leyva, with 290 hotel suites and 25 “exclusive luxury” condominiums, ready for occupancy in 2011. There’s even a rendering.

The property is on First between Spring and Madison streets, next door to a 2-year-old, 24-story tower that houses Hotel 1000 and the Madison Tower condominiums. County records indicate the five-story building now on the site was built in 1900.

The tower’s backdoor debut comes as many downtown condo projects already in the pipeline have been back-burnered because of the credit crunch.

The listing agent and property’s owner couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

— Eric Pryne

Nordstrom ups

credit-card rewards

No, Nordstrom still isn’t turning to the “friends and family, one day only, open until midnight” promotional tactics of some retailers, as President Blake Nordstrom promised earlier this year.

But the Seattle retailer does appear to be tweaking its promotional calendar amid a tough economy.

Already, Nordstrom moved up the start date of its half-yearly sale for women and children from June to May to take advantage of the Memorial Day shopping period.

And now this month, Nordstrom is introducing a new promotional program for its credit-card holders.

For every dollar they spend at Nordstrom Sept. 17-21, they’ll rack up triple the usual number of reward points, putting them closer to such perks as free standard shipping, complimentary alterations and an early access pass to the much-touted Anniversary Sale.

Speaking last week in New York, Chief Financial Officer Michael Koppel said the new promotion is intended to generate excitement and “get customers in while we have a great new assortment of fresh fall merchandise.”

The same day, Nordstrom reported a bigger-than-expected drop in August sales for stores open at least a year. Same-store sales declined 7.9 percent, worse than the 7.1 percent drop that analysts had expected.

“It’s very clear that the consumer has become more value-oriented,” Koppel said during his speech at the Goldman Sachs retail conference.

The new triple-reward-point program brings to eight the number of promotions Nordstrom will offer credit-card holders this year. Typically, they receive extra points for purchases made during five scheduled sale events, plus two private shopping events.

The rest of the year, they get two points for every dollar spent with Nordstrom.

— Amy Martinez

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