The world will be clean, peaceful, and filled with grass and flowers, right? Right?
Totally. I too share the utopian dream. I really do. The problem I’m having is how we’re going to live for the next 30 years, how we’re going to survive in a world of quickly diminishing resources, raging pollution, and terminal global instability. And for those of us who own cars, how it will be knowing every time we drive we’ll be exacerbating this whole mess.
But enough of the PBS buzz kill. The question that we who drive should be asking is, What can we do about it? Buy a hybrid? Sure, they’re cleaner, but they also use the same unctuous black stuff that got us into trouble in the first place. Go hydrogen? Current hydrogen production is more pollutive than direct consumption of oil, and those cars aren’t expected to be commercially available for 10 or 20 years. So, now what to do?
A few brave souls—actually, millions worldwide—have turned to using vegetable oil. Mixed with a few chemicals to create biodiesel, vegetable oil can be used in any diesel engine without any conversions. Not only is it domestically made—for us and by us, the FUBU of alternative fuels—but biodiesel emits up to 78 per- cent fewer carbon-dioxide emissions when compared to conventional petroleum diesel. It can also be easily produced with anything from animal waste (like skulls and spines) to soybean oil to algae. In fact, every single vehicle in the United States could be fueled by algae-oil biodiesel—140.8 billion gallons of it in a year—grown in a 15,000-square-mile piece of currently unused desert. A dot on the map.
Already, biodiesel production has tripled in the U.S., up to an estimated 75 million gallons in 2005. Though currently used primarily for commercial trucking fleets, biodiesel is available to the public at more than 650 stations nationwide (www.biodiesel.org), a number expected to rise significantly as the price of biodiesel drops (which is currently anywhere from $1.75 to $3.75 per gallon depending on where you live) and petrol diesel skyrockets.
Another option is to use straight vegetable oil (SVO) or waste vegetable oil (WVO) as fuel, which gets you retro-cool points considering the first diesel engines popularized in 1900 were intended to run on peanut oil. And recent technology has made running modern cars on straight vegetable oil accessible not just to the eccentric, mechanically inclined hippy but to anyone willing to get a little greasy.
“What first attracted me is that it was free,” explains Denise Lindsay, a 45-year-old San Francisco architectural designer and mother of two who has been driving her 1984 Mercedes diesel wagon for just under a year on the waste vegetable oil she gets gratis at a local Thai restaurant. “But then you find that it’s better for the environment and a renewable resource—those things committed me to staying on veg.”
Same with Colin McCullogh, a 30-year-old piano tuner from Sutton, Massachusetts, who recently converted his 2000 VW TDI Beetle to run on WVO. “I drive a lot for my job and got tired of paying so much, polluting so much.” McCullogh, who gets his oil from a Middle Eastern restaurant, has already put 4,000 miles running grease in his car. “I’m not a hugely mechanical person. This was easy—and so far it’s been just wonderful.”
Lindsay and McCullogh’s conversions enable them to use diesel, biodiesel, or WVO in any combination and, when they’re in a pinch, even jugs of Wesson. “It’s still experimental,” says Lindsay. “You need to know how to tinker or have a good mechanic who understands the process—but I find those are small prices to pay.” Purchased online for around $700, Lindsay’s conversion was installed by her husband, Jeff Stump, a 35-year-old land conservationist who also drives a “Biobenz.” Though early-’80s Mercedeses have become the car of choice for many vegetable-oil users (due to their legendary engines and irresistibly modish styling), any diesel car can be converted with an assortment of kits ranging from $300 to $2,000—an amount WVOers argue they will recoup within a year or so of “free” driving.
“In my job, I spend all my time showing people how to redesign their homes to be smarter, modern, and green,” Lindsay says. “Am I then supposed to drive off in a polluting, gas-guzzling car? No!”
“It’s time for all us to start practicing what we preach.”