By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“I needed hauling capability,” John explained while working the grill. “So I looked for the largest diesel on the road, and got this guy.” He pointed toward a white Ford Excursion parked by the construction office, and asked me to slide underneath. Welded to the chassis just inside the frame rail was a 3-foot, coffin-shaped secondary veg tank that, John described when I resurfaced, was not quite finished but would have a temperature sensor, a vacuum gauge and a fancy pod where their displays would mount up front. It will be ready when the second Jack in the Box is operational, and that’s when he’ll be able to make use of the special valve in his new storage tanks and pump oil straight from fryer to fuel tank.
As a businessman, this makes perfect sense to John. He’s a hamburger guy through and through, he’ll insist, but “Simple economics brought me around to environmentalism.” He likes to say that his Excursion will get better mileage than a Prius, if you’re counting petroleum usage. And he’s even thinking of putting solar panels on the roof to catch all that free sun and help power the place.
When he looks at his Excursion, he marvels at the economy of the loop: “It uses waste heat to heat waste oil and drive me and my stuff around Los Angeles for free.” I asked him how much money he’d save in a year, and his mind snapped into a mode of quick accounting. He turned from the grill and, with a pronged fork still digging into a foot-wide sirloin, began calculating: “From home to here and back is a hundred miles per day, six times a week, at 22 miles per gallon, times $2.39 a gallon, and that’s somewhere above $3,000, minus the initial investment of $1,500, and that means in six months I’ve saved three grand a year — and will never have to pay at the pump again.”
This is not what the biodiesel industry likes to hear. Despite the chemical kinship connecting biodiesel and straight veg, there is bad blood between the camps. Biodiesel has green roots, but it is becoming a big business, with lobbyists and backers like the American Soybean Association and petroleum distributors who have the infrastructure in place to cash in on the booming demand. To them, every J.P. Jenkins or John Lin is a lost customer, or worse, an attack on their business model. The industry’s trade association, the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), has successfully sought regulation and standards, including a rating from the American Society for Testing and Materials that paved the way for EPA approval. And they don’t like the free agents out there tinkering on the side.
Whereas biodiesel is like a nascent Microsoft, expanding rapidly into a new market through a forced consensus of standardization, the straight-veg culture is closer to the Linux of alternative fuels. There are no rules or patents. Information and techniques are swapped freely. It is, dare I say, open source — a grassroots, exploitable energy, which is one of the reasons its users feel so empowered: Anyone can join in, and the raw material is waiting to be hauled out of parking lots nationwide.
“They hate us because we won’t join the club,” complains Joel. In straight-veg circles there is an almost conspiratorial mindset about the industry’s sinister intent. “The industry sees big dollar signs in centralized distribution of biodiesel, so it really frosts their cookie that they can’t control what we’re doing,” says Charlie Anderson, who also charges that the NBB has gone so far as to spread false information about his product.
When I spoke with Jenna Higgins, spokeswoman for the NBB, she did offer a quick denunciation of straight-veg users, who she claims are damaging their engines, breaking the law (by not paying fuel taxes), and reducing consumer confidence in true biodiesel. This last part is why the NBB is equally unhappy with the biodiesel homebrewers; any deviation from the new ASTM specifications, they argue, will tarnish the industry’s reputation.
Each side has its points. Standards are necessary for a new alternative fuel to find acceptance — already an uphill battle. The Greasel is still messy and mainly for people with mechanical inclinations. And using oil may in fact have some long-term consequences for an engine, especially if handled carelessly. At the same time, the price of official biodiesel makes it too expensive for commercial fleets. Biodiesel is also usually sold in mixtures, in a 1:2 or 1:5 ratio with regular petroleum-based diesel, so it doesn’t have the same emissions reduction or petroleum displacement as straight veg. And running 100 percent biodiesel can cause a whole different set of engine problems.
The one note of universal agreement is that the country’s 3 billion annual gallons of waste vegetable oil and 60,000,000 acres of fallow fields that could grow soybeans or rapeseed or other vegetable-oil crops represent a wide open opportunity for renewable energy use. The NBB wants more sellable oil. Straight-veg users want more free oil. Environmentalists want less pollution. And the Department of Energy wants to see vegetable oil help reduce the country’s dependence on oil imports. “There’s not enough vegetable oil to replace all diesel,” said McCormick from the National Renewal Energy Lab, “but you could have a noticeable impact.”
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