Gimme an Oil Change Drivers Climb on the Vegatable Powered Bandwagon By Caroline Cummins
Late last summer, I went up to Seattle for my high-school reunion. During the reunion picnic, I fell into conversation with an old friend, and walked him back to his car. The license plate on his station wagon read VEGPWRD. Curious, I asked about it; my pal, after all, was a diehard bicyclist in high school, shunning automobiles entirely. “Oh, my car runs on vegetable oil,” he said. “It’s great. Totally clean, and totally free.”
I had heard of gas-electric hybrids, and all-electric cars, and solar-powered cars. But this was something new. And it wasn’t anything exotic or high-tech; it was just a guy I knew, running an old diesel car on salad oil.
Friends, neighbors, word of mouth—over the past few years, the “veggie car” movement has surged in popularity, driven by the good old-fashioned grapevine. In Eugene, Oregon, Dan Gorman was listening to the National Public Radio show “Car Talk” when a woman called in to ask about it. He’s since acquired two diesel cars, and shares his vegetable-based fuel with a friend. Amy Beller and Kate MacQueen saw their neighbor driving a Volkswagen Golf with “Powered by Biodiesel” stickers on it. They were thinking about buying a hybrid, but changed their minds and purchased a brand-new diesel Golf instead.
This is the slow, sneaky appeal of the movement: If the neighbor down the street is doing it without much trouble, why not us? And in recent months, given the increasing instability in the Middle East and the steadily escalating gas prices in the U.S., the movement has begun to get more press and gain more adherents.
There’s actually more than one way to run a car on vegetable oil. First, the car has to be a diesel car, because vegetable oil simply isn’t flammable enough to burn in gasoline engines. Second, in order to make the vegetable oil thin enough to use in a diesel engine, either the oil or the engine has to be modified. When my high-school friend, Greg Wong, decided to try it more than a year ago, he spent a few months researching—and rejecting—his options.
He initially went to a Portland workshop on converting cars to a two-tank system, with a tank of regular diesel and a tank of straight vegetable oil, or SVO. Two-tank cars start up and cool down on the diesel tank, but switch over to the SVO tank while driving. Not exactly thrilled about a system that required a second tank and still relied on petroleum, Wong kept looking.
The Internet proved indispensable. Wong bought his car, a 1984 Mercedes, on eBay. He ordered an engine-conversion kit for his car from Elsbett, a German company. (“The instructions were all in German, so you kind of had to figure it out,” he laments.) He met a guy in an online forum who worked for Neoteric, a California-based biofuels company, and found out about an additional modification device called the VorMax. Wong drove his new Mercedes from Seattle to Berkeley for a conversion workshop, installed all his new equipment in one day, and drove the car back up on vegetable oil.
Finally, eager to make his car as cheap as possible, Wong decided to run the car on waste vegetable oil, or WVO. He approached a Japanese restaurant and cut a deal: I’ll take away some of your used cooking oil if you give it to me for free. Since restaurants have to pay disposal services to haul away their used oil, Wong was welcomed with open arms. Now, every week or so, Wong goes to the restaurant and carts away a couple dozen gallons of used cooking oil in the back of his car. He lets it settle for a week or so, then pumps the stuff straight into his car.
“Some people say it smells like greasy Chinese food,” says Wong of his car. “I just think it smells like vegetable oil. It’s a way better smell than diesel.”
In addition to the two-tank SVO system and the engine-modified WVO system, there’s a third system known as biodiesel. Biodiesel costs more than regular diesel or used restaurant oil, but it has the dual advantages of convenience and flexibility. Essentially a refined form of vegetable oil, in which glycerine is removed from the oil through a chemical process, biodiesel can be poured straight into any diesel car, and mixed in any proportion with regular diesel. No modifications to the car are necessary, except for replacing rubber hoses with synthetic ones in older cars. And if the car runs out of biodiesel, it can keep chugging on regular diesel. It’s an easy way for drivers to try out biofuels.
Originally, biodiesel was a homemade product, something you cooked up and stashed in your garage. Cooperatives formed around the country of people willing to concoct large batches to share. But the refining process is messy and caustic, and these days, more and more biodiesel fans—cooperatives included—are buying their biodiesel ready-made. According to the National Biodiesel Board, retail biofueling stations jumped 50 percent last year alone, to more than 200 nationwide. And companies like Eugene’s SeQuential Biofuels have sprung up around the country to distribute biodiesel (most often produced in the Midwest, from soybeans) to clients ranging from farmers to boaters to urbanites.
Beller and McQueen bought their shiny silver Golf last fall, and signed up with SeQuential in March of this year. In their side yard, under a waterproof barbecue cover, sits a 55-gallon oil drum painted green. SeQuential delivered the drum, full of pure biodiesel or B100, to their house in exchange for a $30 deposit on the drum and the cost of the biodiesel. Now they simply use a hand pump to fill their gas tank.
“It’s just so much easier to get in the car and not feel like I’m contributing as much to the horrible mess on this planet,” says Beller. “The only problem is that I ride my bike less.” Beller admits that the one-stop-shopping aspect of signing up for ready-made biodiesel helped convince her to try it. “There’s no way I’d make the stuff,” she agrees.
SeQuential has a partnership with Eugene-based Tyree Oil to ship biodiesel in from the Midwest and store it in Eugene. Every Saturday morning, Ian Hill, one of SeQuential’s founders, drives over to Tyree’s headquarters and loads the back of the SeQuential company truck with an enormous tote full of biodiesel. From 8 to 10 a.m., customers can swing by, have Hill fill up their car, and write him a check.
On a Saturday in April, Gorman rattles up in his white Datsun pickup, loaded in the back with his own 55-gallon drum. Hill fills up the drum and helps Gorman secure it with ropes; weighed down in the back, Gorman slowly rumbles away. Katie O’Connor, a member of a local cooperative called Eugene Bio Car Share, drives up in a black diesel Golf. The cooperative’s car, she says, is actually a 1982 diesel Mercedes named Eva. But she needs to drive more these days than she’d expected, so she bought the Golf for herself. “I named this car Bob,” she says proudly, waving an arm over the Golf. “But I’m not sure it’ll stick. I’ll have to wait and see.”
Along with the Saturday-morning fill-ups and the drum-delivery service, SeQuential has a cardlock pump at Tyree that dispenses a biodiesel-diesel blend (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent diesel) 24 hours a day to registered customers. The company has additional retail pumps in Portland and Medford, and supplies such groups as Grease Works!, a Corvallis-based biodiesel coop. But the company’s long-term goal is to own a chain of fueling stations offering a variety of biofuels, from biodiesel blends to gasoline-ethanol blends. SeQuential opened its first-ever station, on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene.
Hill first stumbled across biodiesel, he says, while he was earning his bachelor’s degree in environmental science at the University of Oregon. He made biodiesel at home for a while before deciding the mess wasn’t worth it. (“I just recently got rid of about a dozen drums of gunky oil I had made that were stuck in my back yard,” he confesses.) But even though SeQuential currently has its soybean-based oil shipped in from the Midwest, the company was founded on the belief that regionally based products are the way to go.
“Biodiesel use has been going up and up and up over the past three years, almost quadrupling per year,” says Hill. “But because we have periodic spikes of use and demand, we don’t always have enough when we need it. Our whole game plan is to get to where we’re producing our own biodiesel here in Oregon.” This summer, Hill and his partner, Tomas Endicott, hope to start producing commercial biodiesel from WVO.
“The U.S. alone uses one-quarter of the petrol in the world,” says Hill. “There’s no energy source available on the planet that can handle all the demand. So decentralized production of energy sources is the real solution.”
Biodiesel is not entirely emissions-free, but it does offer significant reductions. According to Joshua Tickell, author of the biodiesel bible “From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank,” B100 eliminates carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions and reduces most other emissions by up to 50 percent. Biodiesel alone does not reduce nitrous oxide emissions, but certain engine modifications or fuel additives can help lower the emissions. As Beller says, it’s hard to feel guilty about driving when your car is nearly as harmless as a soybean plant.
But when your car guzzles gasoline, and cleans out your wallet at the same time, it’s hard not to feel guilty. Last fall I traded in my old, inefficient Volvo for a zippier Volkswagen Jetta. The increased mileage was moderately satisfying, but going to the gas station was beginning to feel oppressive. Because of Wong, because he made it all seem feasible, I began looking at diesel cars. And in May, a car came my way. Another Jetta, same color, same age—but with that distinctive diesel rattle coming from under the hood. I took a breath, said goodbye to my old Jetta, and traded the one for the other.
Nine months to take the plunge isn’t so bad, I tell myself. As Hill says, “A movement to something better doesn’t happen overnight.”
Caroline Cummins is a freelance writer in Eugene. She can be reached at [email protected]