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Green and Bare It

Jessica Radford Hoelle turns us on to biodiesel. Photos by Orly Olivier

Every morning a little after 11 o’clock, Jessica Radford Hoelle would lift her slender self off of the chaise longue where she had been recovering — either from a night out in Black Rock City or an early-morning rope bondage seminar — slip her pedicured feet into her fuzzy pink flip-flops and saunter over to her sporty black Volkswagen New Beetle TDI, parked in the shade just behind her camp. As the day’s participants in the Burning Man Alternative Energy Zone Tour shuffled into place around her, Hoelle, like a spokesmodel at an auto show, would begin her presentation on the benefits and virtues of biodiesel. Every morning I’d stand in awe at how rapt her audience was. No one drifted away. No one even coughed.

Of course, it helped that Hoelle was usually naked during her demonstration. Or at most, wearing a hot little pair of frilly red boy shorts.

So much for the Death of Environmentalism, I’d think, watching her.

“If you’re personally looking to make a dent in the greenhouse gases you’re putting into the atmosphere, or you’d like to help reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil, biodiesel is an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil that’s ready to use right now,” Hoelle would tell her crowd. “You don’t need to wait for hydrogen or an all-electric car. Biodiesel will run in any diesel engine. It’s less harmful to the environment, it’s not carcinogenic and we don’t have to fight other countries for access to it.”

Heads nodded; brows furrowed. Smart questions were asked.

If only the Weather Channel’s climate-change expert would wear those frilly red panties. Then people would really pay attention.

Making environmentalism sexy is not something the environmental movement has been particularly good at. Decades of flat shoes and politically evolved representations of women have made tree-hugging appear somewhat anti-libidinous to the masses, and while I will defend all that well-intentioned sensitivity to my death, I also have to admit a certain weakness for the attractive feminine role model. Case in point: Six months after Burning Man, I dumped my decade-old red Jeep Wrangler for a darling little New Beetle TDI of my own, a green one, with a moon roof, a booming stereo and a voluptuous purr to the engine. It wasn’t just Hoelle’s influence. I’d also been swayed by Colette Brooks and her muscle cars and my friend Roxanne Metrano, whose beautiful teal-green Mercedes first lured me into the biodiesel web.

In fact, the world — well, the West Coast at least — is so peppered with biodiesel babes that one woman, Sienna Wildwind of Berkeley (where else?), has decided to assemble them all into a pinup calendar called “Babes for Biodiesel.” The year 2006 includes Kimber Holmes, president of the California Biodiesel Board; Jolie Ginsberg, who runs Incredible Adventures, a biodiesel adventure-travel company; and Hoelle, who’ll be wearing clothes. “I didn’t want to create a calendar of nudes looking like Playboy bunnies,” says Wildwind. “These are women in control of their images. They’re activists. And that’s stimulating.”

Wildwind, who drives a car just like mine (“my sweet pea,” she calls it), got turned on to biodiesel’s feminine mystique three years ago at the Biodiesel Collective Car show in Berkeley. “There were men there, but they were doing the car thing,” she recalls. “It was the women who were really kind of taking ownership of the event. They were doing the outreach. This one woman in particular, Claudia, she mixed up a blender batch while wearing roller skates! I thought I have to be one of these people.” Now Wildwind has started a company called Green Means Go Cars that, much like Colette Brooks’ BioBling.com, will help you procure the right diesel car and the fuel to run it. She’ll even help you make it yourself. “Making biodiesel is sort of like glorified cooking,” she says, “but it’s also chemistry. There’s something powerful about it. I’m drawn to it.”

Becoming a blender-batch expert, however, requires some time and equipment, not to mention the nerve to handle the significant amounts of methyl ester and lye necessary to refine the glycerin out of straight vegetable oil, making it safe for an unconverted diesel engine. And while I wouldn’t rule out the option of homebrewing — especially after Wildwind’s pitch about the inherent sexiness of the whole operation — for now I prefer to have someone else do the blending. Given Los Angeles’ tiny biodiesel market at the moment, that someone’s not so easy to find. Los Angeles County has only a handful of places to buy biodiesel. There’s the ITL Fuel Stop in Cudahy, or the Biodiesel Co-op in Santa Monica, cooked up by Brooks and Kent Bullard, a renewable-energy advocate who even runs his Web site, SustainableOptions.com, on fossil-free energy. The co-op membership costs $500 up-front for overhead, and sells fuel in 100-gallon increments at $3.40 a gallon. It’s a significant capital outlay, but a godsend for people who live in apartments or homes with no place to store a 55-gallon drum of fuel. Because many homeowners’ insurance companies lump biodiesel in with more combustible fuel, you can’t store it at home without voiding your homeowner’s policy.

I almost wanted to join the co-op purely for solidarity — on the breezy cold January day it opened, I managed to get the number of a veggie-oil-friendly mechanic; met the proprietor of a new biodiesel car rental service, BioBeetle.com; and picked up a few free stickers to show the world my Bug doesn’t eat fossil fuels. Lucky for me, though, my homeowners’ insurance company considers a 55-gallon drum equivalent to two gas guzzlers in the garage, and cheerfully signed off on my home-fueling station. I now order my fuel through Joe Gershen, who runs a biodiesel distributor called L.A. Biofuels as well as the nonprofit outreach organization Green Depot. (Gershen is negotiating with the city of Santa Monica to establish a nonprofit “sustainable energy center” with B100, pure veggie fuel, at the pump. “We could have it going by spring,” he says.) Gershen and his friendly sales associate, Spike Lewis, set me up with a 55-gallon barrel, which, on Gershen’s advice, I store in a shed to reduce the wild temperature swings that cause condensation to build up in the barrel. The first day I filled up in the back yard, the man I live with came out to document the rich, viscous amber fluid as it flowed through a clear tube into my tank. “It’s beautiful,” he marveled. “It looks like liquid gold.”

And it smells fabulous. “Wanna smell my exhaust?” I say to friends when I’m showing off my car. You can take that any way you want.

One final disclaimer: Despite the dream I had the other night, in which I uncharacteristically dressed up in fishnets and a black dress to convince some city officials to mandate biodiesel for all trucks at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles (“The particulate matter in biodiesel is nontoxic!” I chirped), neither I nor any of the people mentioned in this article believe that biodiesel is pollution free, that snarled traffic should be tolerated or that rainforests in the Amazon should be razed to fuel our cars (we prefer recycled waste oil, or, failing that, canola crops in the Western U.S.), so you can put that anti-biodiesel brochure from Chevron right back in the drawer where you found it, thank you. In fact, says Wildwind, “the motto of the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective is ‘Driving Still Sucks.’?” If biodiesel is sexy, biking is sexier. It’s just that once in a while, you want to wear high heels.


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