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.
“Nope.” Volkswagen does make a factory model diesel Jetta, but mine is a garden-variety gasoline engine.
“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.
“A veggie system is not that complicated,” Joel explained as we stood among the various garages and sheds in the work area behind his house. Joel is about 6-foot-2. His red and rugged skin, sandy blond hair and freckled hands suggest a lot of time spent in the sun. In addition to starting his small oil-distribution network, Joel is the closest thing to an official Greasel installer on the West Coast. You order the parts, and for an extra fee he’ll install them, along with some of his own custom additions, and do maintenance if necessary.
Around the yard were all manner of veggie-power engineering: filtering socks dripping oil into buckets; 52-gallon drums storing the finished product; a 1992 Power Ram 250 Cummins Turbo that became Joel’s first veggie vehicle; and a down-and-out Suzuki Samurai that, when repainted and outfitted with a Volkswagen 1.9-liter “vegged out” diesel, will surely be the sharpest biomass-burning teen-market leisure jeep in history.
But the real mechanical monument to Joel’s faith in straight veg is his recently acquired 2003 Dodge Ram Crew Cab short-bed 4X4 with a 24-valve Cummins diesel fuel-rail system. He voided the warranty on the $38,000 powerhouse to install his Greasel components, which he proudly exhibited after opening the hood. There were two fuel lines coming into the engine, one connected to the standard diesel tank, and the other to a steel box that he’d welded in back behind the cab. He’d also added his own transparent filter, which indicates the status of the tank filter further up the line and detects whether there’s vegetable oil or diesel in the system. “You have to start the engine on diesel, and that heats the oil,” he explained. “And you have to cycle the vegetable oil out when you turn it off, so there’s none in there when it’s cold.” Switching back and forth is easier than it sounds, Joel said. “Here, I’ll show you.”
We took the “’03” for a spin. Five minutes out, Joel flipped a tiny switch hanging from the dash. “Now, we’re veg.” The engine’s clang and grind smoothed out slightly, and the aromatic bite of the diesel fuel was replaced by a sweeter, balmier perfume of chilaquiles. Or maybe it was al pastor. “If you get your grease from a donut shop, she smells like donuts,” Joel exclaimed. “If it’s a Thai place, the whiff is pad Thai. Today, as you can tell, I’m running Mexican.”
Joel claims that the Greasel gets better performance than diesel; that veggie power amps the low-end torque, which he can feel when ascending the Dennison Grade coming back from the coast, and the gas pedal still has a little lift, even when towing. And according to Charlie, dyno tests, a widely used automotive-performance measuring system, have confirmed that oil has more horsepower than diesel. Some oils, he says, provide a bigger kick than others, with the best coming from Japanese restaurants: “A good tempura place will make your Greasel run smooth, and it burns real clean.”
How clean? No one has tested the tempura thesis specifically, but both biodiesel and straight-veg fuels have been shown to significantly diminish the particulate matter and extremely toxic emissions that are a known problem with petroleum diesel. They also cut down on greenhouse gases. Robert McCormick, a scientist at the Department of Energy’s National Renewal Energy Lab (NREL), explained how the life cycle of carbon dioxide released by vegetable-based fuel is closed. Carbon dioxide is metabolized by plants through photosynthesis, so the “carbon released by burning this year’s soybeans can be reabsorbed into next year’s soybeans.” But fossil carbon, locked away for millions of years, becomes a net surplus when it’s burned; once free, it cannot be re-circulated.”
Among most straight-veg enthusiasts, however, the main appeal is the price of fuel, which is zero. Take J.P. Jenkins, an 82-year-old RV trekker who answered the phone one day at the Greasel headquarters while Charlie and Perry were still in Puerto Rico. Jenkins pulls his 35-foot Mountaineer — “top of the line, including three slide-outs” — with a three-quarter-ton Dodge that he converted to veg last spring. Since then, J.P. has been an oil-collecting blur on the interstate, in constant transit between his home in Port Orchard, Washington, and family destinations in Illinois and Las Vegas, heating his found grease to the right temperature using a turkey thermometer, filtering it and pouring it into his 200-gallon tank.
I asked if that wasn’t a pain in the ass, especially for a retiree.
“Not unless you call ‘free,’ as in F-R-E-E, a pain in the ass.”
Besides, he was there to get Greasel’s new NOMAD tank, which will do all the heating and filtering automatically.
Is that worth the thousand bucks it’ll cost?
“Abso-tittle pot-a-loo-loo! Worth every penny. I’ll make that back in a few months.”
This is the same sentiment (if worded differently) that John Lin expresses about his Greasel works, which he takes a step further through vertical integration. John owns his own Jack in the Box, making him both user and supplier, with a personal reserve of 10 gallons of waste vegetable oil a day. A couple of years ago he bought a 20-year-old Mercedes 300SD, called Charlie Anderson, and started filling up out back. His family thought he was crazy, he explained as we stood at the work site of his second Jack in the Box, in Irvine, across the street from the University of California campus. His wife, Pranee, smiled and nodded in agreement. She still thinks he’s a little crazy. They were grilling a special lunch for the 20 or so workers who were building John’s “American dream,” which was still a frame of posts and chipboard and dust and hardhats. The Mercedes ran well, and ran cheap, and so John decided to upgrade.
“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.”
As we drove through the hilly acreage behind Joel Wolf’s ranch, his cattle shading themselves beneath stately old oaks, he gushed about the scale of the potential. “Cars are just the start! Tractors, generators, stationary pumps — agricultural equipment runs on diesel. As do ships. All that could run on vegetable oil.” We passed a wide patch of black crude seeping out of the ground, then an oil well, then a grove of dark walnut trees whose fruit, if pressed, could go in the tank of the truck we were driving. I asked Joel if he thought of harvesting his walnuts for that purpose. “Not yet,” he answered. “But they’d probably burn real nice.”