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Photos by Joshuah Bearman
A sticker on the blue Dodge read: ask me about veggie power. The truck belonged to Joel Wolf, a rancher, surfer and longtime diesel mechanic, who had agreed to meet me at Summit Restaurant up above the Ojai Valley, so that I could do just what the sticker requested. Recently, Joel formed a company to propagate the usage of discarded vegetable oil as an alternative fuel. And no matter how many times the question is put to him — “Okay, so what gives with veggie power?” — Joel can’t contain his enthusiasm when answering. He loves it. It’s liberating. It’s the future. It makes freaking sense. Veggie power, as he put it over a chocolate malted outside the Summit, “is totally bitchen.”
Joel is part of a growing movement that is realizing the latent environmental and economic potential of diesel engines by converting them to run on the oil thrown away daily by thousands of restaurants. Making a relatively small investment, these folks install parallel fuel systems in their cars and trucks, into which they can pour grease collected from the back of Wendy’s, Wienerschnitzel or any eatery that serves fried food. They adapt all kinds of vehicles, share technical information, transverse the country, stopping at diners every 500 miles or so, proselytizing along the way. Greasel, it’s called — or at least that’s one coinage catching on because it’s the name of the company selling the most popular conversion kit. The Depart-ment of Energy prefers the more technical designation of waste vegetable oil (WVO), but among devotees the term that generates the most enthusiasm is a passionately pronounced “straight veg.”
“Where’s your rig?” Joel asked as we prepared to see the straight-veg operation back at his ranch. I pointed to my car, parked by the Summit’s storage shed. Joel was headed in that direction already, because just inside the shed were two 5-gallon containers, heavy with grease from the Summit’s fryers. “I have an arrangement with them,” he said, handing me a container. Then he turned his attention to my car.
“Too bad,” Joel said, cracking a smile. “We could convert you right now.”
Using vegetable oil as fuel began with the earliest of Dr. Rudolf Diesel’s engines a century ago. Diesel’s remarkable innovation was that his machine required no spark. Its method of “compression ignition” uses the pistons to squeeze and heat a volume of air, into which fuel is injected. When the hot, pressurized air ignites the fuel, the released energy shoots the piston back out and exerts force for the vehicle. Vegetable oil shares enough chemical properties with diesel fuel that it will function similarly inside the engine. In fact, the first exhibition diesel at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris ran on pure peanut oil, and it was only later that diesels were modified to accept the cheaper and far dirtier fossil fuels that would power the 20th century.
Vegetable oil, which is thicker and solidifies at a higher temperature than petroleum diesel, requires a reduced viscosity to function in today’s diesels. There are two methods to achieve this. One involves a chemical reaction: Mix the oil with methanol and lye, and you get a stable, vegetable-based fuel called biodiesel. Biodiesel know-how has been around since the 1970s, and it has caught on in the past five years as the country’s fastest-growing alternative fuel. Many government fleets — military vehicles, buses, garbage and postal trucks — now use biodiesel. The Channel Islands National Park, for example, uses biodiesel for all its vehicles, heating and ships. In addition to professional production, some people brew biodiesel in their back yards.
“But that’s some pretty serious chemicals to be playing with on your own,” said Charlie Anderson, co-founder of Greasel Conversions, Inc. “I know guys who are missing their eyebrows from that stuff. And commercial biodiesel is expensive — almost four bucks a gallon some places.” So while biodiesel was becoming an established industrial alternative fuel, Charlie looked for a way to let people “run their cars on veg the other way.”
That other way is to simply heat up the vegetable oil. Charlie and his partner, Perry Pillard, built an apparatus for cars and trucks that stores raw vegetable oil in a separate tank and warms it to 160 degrees, at which point the oil, without any chemical processing, can course easily through the engine. Charlie’s kit wasn’t the earliest — before he started three years ago, there were people selling similar gear and many following DIY manuals on their own — but Greasel was the first company in the United States to offer a fairly reliable product and technical support in the form of Charlie answering questions over the phone. And the Greasel kits are moderately priced, ranging from $300 up to a couple thousand, depending on the kit, the customization and installation requirements.
That’s made the Missouri-based Greasel, which has sold around 3,000 units so far, the informal center of the straight-veg community. Charlie and Perry were even in Puerto Rico recently setting up the first commercial client for straight veg — a Windham resort that will convert its 40 tourism buses to make use of the island’s plentiful surplus cooking oil.