Corporate Power | June 14, 2011

How can I get my car off gas and onto biodiesel or another alternative fuel choice?

Reading this month’s Farmer Hero story about a farmer making biodiesel on his farm from sunflower seeds got me thinking about using something besides 87-octane unleaded gasoline as fuel myself. I live in a city and rely on biking, walking and public transportation for most of my getting-around-town needs, but my wife does have a car that we use, especially when we want to get out of town. What would it take to get us off gas and onto biodiesel or another alternative fuel choice?

Where to begin? How about with, “What are my options when it comes to driving around without using gas?” Like with so many other questions, I looked to my old friend Wikipedia at this article on alternative fuel vehicles. There definitely are options out there:

  • flex-fuel vehicles (which are designed to run both gasoline and another fuel like ethanol)
  • cars that run on compressed natural gas (common in buses, but for cars only one or two brands are available in the US)
  • hybrid electric cars (that run on a combination of gasoline and stored energy in batteries)
  • fully electric cars (again, a very limited amount are available in the US, but maybe this will expand someday)
  • diesel cars that can run on biodiesel or relatively easily modified to run on waste vegetable oil

Cars with diesel engines are interesting because of those different options they give you, and since they’re generally more efficient than those that run on gasoline. What is biodiesel? It’s just diesel fuel that comes from vegetable oil or animal fat oil, as opposed to coming from petroleum (the regular stuff we dig up from underground and also where gasoline comes from). And waste vegetable oil? With a little modification, you can run a diesel engine on vegetable oil like you use to cook at home. Since you probably don’t go through gallons of it at home, people get used oil from restaurants who cook up all those french fries and tasty other fried foods.

I mentioned this stuff about biodiesel and waste vegetable oil to my colleague at Farm Aid and she recommended I talk to the fine gents of Green Grease Monkey. They convert people’s diesel cars to run on waste vegetable oil and “spread the grease gospel” about the benefits of this system at workshops and conferences. I spoke with Patrick Keaney, who describes himself as “a sustainable bio-fuels mechanic, but what I really am is a pro-democracy activist.” As we talked, he was driving his “veggie car” on the way to a restaurant to pick up a new supply of used vegetable oil from a restaurant.

I asked Patrick how he got his start in the world of bio-fuels and he said his inspiration came about ten years ago from seeing the HempCar in Boston, which ran on biodiesel made from hemp seed oil. He said, “I’d done all this reading about various energy alternatives, but I’d never heard about running diesel engines on plant oil. I was just flabbergasted, so I started to do some research on using waste veggie oil.” After some trial and error on his friends’ and family’s cars, Patrick co-founded Green Grease Monkey to “do what I can to make changes everyday at the ground level; to make one less car filling up at the pump and one more person aware of the alternatives that exist to the oil-centered economy.”

Speaking of economy, how much would all this stuff cost anyway? If you play your cards right and find the right restaurant, they’ll give you waste vegetable oil for free, but you’ll still need to add some equipment to your car. Patrick says, “There are all kinds of ways to complicate it, but we prefer to go with a stripped-down, simple, effective kit — and we can put those in a car for somebody starting around $1,500, including parts and labor.” If you’re handy with cars and want to do it yourself, you can theoretically do it for less.

So all this waste vegetable oil stuff sounded appealing to me, but one major and obvious obstacle arose before my biodiesel journey even began; the car my wife and I drive uses regular ol’ gasoline. According to Popular Mechanics, only about 1% of new cars sold in America have diesel engines, compared with about 50% of new cars sold in Europe. Patrick said, “I’ve been to other countries like Brazil and Nicaragua to do training for veggie oil conversions and there are a lot more diesel cars running around. Hopefully in the future, we’ll… run our vehicles on something more sustainable than petro-fuel.” In the meantime, a few brands do sell new diesel cars in the US and there are plenty of older diesel cars still on the road available for conversion.

We’ll have to wait to see if car companies respond to the demand for alternative fuel cars by bringing some of the diesel models they sell overseas to the U.S. Or maybe other technologies we haven’t even thought of yet will appear. In any case, Patrick has seen an expanded interest in what he and others are doing with waste vegetable oil, saying, “There’s a little underground movement. There are guys that do what I do in every city in America — people out there tinkering with diesel engines to make them run on waste oil… More people are beginning to realize that this alternative has been around for over 100 years and those people will start to question why we’ve been going in the direction we’ve been going. ”

Even though he’s recycling what would otherwise be wasted vegetable oil, Patrick still sees it as a limited and precious resource because of the energy it takes to grow, process and transport that vegetable oil before it’s used to cook, and, eventually power his car. Overall, he thinks we need to re-evaluate our priorities for fuel. He says, “We need to power our farms, the people that are producing food for us.” He’s worked with farmers interested in running their farm equipment on biodiesel and waste vegetable oil. He’s also a strong advocate of public transportation and says, “The ultimate answer to the energy crisis is for people to consume less – not consume the same amount of a greener fuel… It’s weird to be a car guy and be encouraging people not to drive, but we don’t feel like this is a permanent alternative to oil because the veggie oil that these restaurants all use wouldn’t be feasible without the cheap petroleum infrastructure we have.”

Since our current car runs just fine (and now that I’ve finally replaced its tape deck with a CD player!), I don’t think I’ll be lining up at the Chinese restaurant down the block to glug their free waste oil into the back of my car just yet. But I’ve got a lot to think about when it comes to the various ways we use energy and appreciating the ways that energy gets to us. I definitely plan to take a hard look at all the options again when it’s time to replace our car.

Further Reading

  • Have you heard about “hydrofracking”? Check out this month’s Ask Farm Aid to read about a process that is quickly becoming more commonplace on farmland and rural areas to extract natural gas from deep underground. An alternative to oil and coal, but is it a good thing, and for whom?
  • Read our Farmer Hero profile of Nick Meyer, a Vermont dairy farmer who grows sunflower seeds and makes biodiesel to help run his farm equipment in a sustainable way.

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