Fill 'er up with Krispy Kreme

Biodiesel fuel costs more than gasoline and can smell kind of funny. But recycling kitchen grease beats war in the Mideast, doesn't it?

Published March 19, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Jeffrey Miottel, 36, of San Rafael, Calif., drives a cream-colored, 1984 Mercedes 300TD that inspires hunger pangs.

If you're stuck in traffic behind him, you won't be choking on diesel exhaust -- instead, you might find yourself wondering if you've left an old restaurant takeout bag under the back seat.

Miottel, a contractor and environmentalist, makes his own fuel from used grease recycled from local Marin County restaurants.

"I haven't been to a gas station since last May," he brags.

Fueling up on biodiesel gives his car's emissions the pungent aroma of whichever kitchen the oil came from. "We were using oil from an Indian place one time, and it smelled like cinnamon chai coming out of the tailpipe," says Miottel. "When we use sesame oil from this organic-chip manufacturer, it smells like you're a walking stir-fry." His favorite source to cadge grease from: sushi bars, because tempura grease comes out of the fryer relatively clean, making it easy to work with.

Miottel's Mercedes gets only 25 miles per gallon, but driving it is better for the environment and air quality than using petroleum diesel. Plus, no one ever went to war in the Middle East over French fry grease.

"Biodiesel's a local homegrown fuel that you can make yourself and not have to go fight a war for," Miottel proselytizes. He teaches weekend classes on how to make the fuel.

Could biodiesel be a burn-your-veggies answer to global warming, pollution and energy independence? According to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, biodiesel produces 78 percent less CO2 than regular diesel. And it mitigates the cancer risks of diesel exhaust by 94 percent, the lab reports. One caveat: Biodiesel does release 5.8 percent more nitrous oxide than petroleum diesel.

With "No Blood for Oil" back on war protest signs, the nascent biodiesel movement hopes to win converts from petroleum to sunflower, soybean and canola. This summer, Brent Baker, 32, a New York carpenter, aka "DJ Chrome," will travel cross-country in a bio-fueled school bus donated by Greenpeace with two other DJs and a mechanic on a B.I.O.Tour to promote sustainable energy alternatives to foreign oil.

"The catalyst of Sept. 11 really kind of kicked my butt into gear with it, and the looming oil war was the push to say that we've got to do this now," Baker says. There are a lot of reasons to make it work. It's better for the environment and its better for the children of Iraq."

The B.I.O. (Bio-fuel Information and Outreach) Tour school bus is just the latest in a parade of green biodiesel vehicles, from the Veggie Van to the Greasecar, that have zoomed cross-country, fully powered by grease, to evangelize the fuel.

"They're not proving the practical readiness of biodiesel. They're proving the point that symbolically, it's possible," says Mark Bunger, a senior auto-industry analyst for Forrester Research.

While the homebrewers and the veggie vans have the taking-it-to-streets, DIY cred, government agencies are actually the biggest users of the alternative fuel in the U.S., with 300 fleets using some biodiesel. The city of Berkeley, Calif., is experimenting with running almost all 200 of its diesel vehicles on 100 percent biodiesel.

Even so, the usage of the fuel is so small that the Department of Energy doesn't track annual consumption. The price of the fuel keeps it from being a true competitor to regular diesel, and there is no biodiesel infrastructure to speak of. There are just 50 commercial pumps in the U.S., according to the National Biodiesel Board.

But as an alternative fuel, biodiesel has one advantage over the grand plans for improved fuel economy, hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells being promoted by everyone from the president to the Sierra Club. Millions of diesel-powered vehicles are on the road right now. Why not run them cleaner today?

An estimated 10 to 15 million gallons of biodiesel were consumed in the country last year, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Ninety percent of that total came from wholesale suppliers who derive the fuel from soybean oil, not restaurant grease.

Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Teton are among the national parks that use the fuel. Some 300 fleets of government vehicles, including public school districts, utility companies, and federal and state agencies do so for environmental, health and political reasons. Most of the fleets use a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel, called B20. B20's selling point is that no change needs to be made to a diesel car to use B20 as fuel.

"In France when you buy diesel at the pump you're buying 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent diesel fuel," Tickell, driver of the Veggie Van and author of "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel." "And most drivers don't even know it."

Diesel vehicles are much more prevalent in Europe, making up some 35 percent of cars and trucks on the road, according to Forrester's Bunger, so it's unsurprising that the Europeans are ahead of the U.S. on the biodiesel front.

Blending biodiesel into diesel also offsets the greater costs of the more expensive vegetable-made fuel. Moreover, B20 can fulfill many legislated mandates for government entities to use alternative fuels, since the use of it alone reduces the carcinogenic risks of diesel by some 27 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Using B100, as Berkeley, Calif., is experimenting with, is more of a challenge. Some cars and trucks built before 1993 have rubber hoses that can be eroded by the fuel. In colder climates, the fuel can thicken when the temperature drops.

Martin Stenflo, president and founder of Boulder Biodiesel, a cooperative, drives his 1983 Mercedes on B50 during the winter. "When it gets cold, biodiesel gels up. Once it drops below freezing, you need to mix some diesel fuel into your biodiesel or have heating elements installed in your car."

Stenflo made his first biodiesel in "blender-size" batches. "It kind of makes your margaritas taste funny," he says.

Today, Stenflo is working on a project with the University of Colorado at Boulder to run the university bus on waste oil produced in the school's cafeteria.

But he sees cost as the biggest barrier. "At this point 100 percent biodiesel is about $1 more a gallon. If you try to convince a school or a company to use it, who are they going to fire, whose salary are they going to cut to make up that cost? Cost is a big issue."

Anyway you mix it, biodiesel is just more expensive. In Ukiah, Calif., where Yokayo Biofuels sells biodiesel for $2.65 a gallon, the price for petroleum ranges between $1.89 and $2.09 a gallon, says Kumar Plocher, the company founder.

Biodiesel advocates love to point out that petroleum diesel wouldn't be so cheap in the U.S. if the oil and gas industry weren't so heavily subsidized. And try adding in the cost of war in the Middle East if you want to get a truly fair price, they argue. In March 2003, two bills were introduced in Congress seeking to provide tax subsidies for biodiesel fuel.

But maybe paying a higher price for cleaner fuel is the right thing to do. Baker, from the B.I.O. Tour, points out that some people are willing to pay more for organic food, and that some of them will be willing to pay more for fuel that they can feel socially and politically good about.

Still, even biodiesel's biggest supporters acknowledge that it has far to go. "A realistic goal for the industry would be to provide 10 percent of the diesel market in 10 years," says Jenna Higgins, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board.

Not every environmentalist is jumping on the biodiesel bandwagon, however. Some major environmental groups don't buy the argument that biodiesel is the right way to make cars cleaner. "Our concerns with biodiesel are the same as our concerns with regular diesel. It's got a lot more toxic pollutants in it than regular gasoline," says Brendan Bell, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, which advocates increasing overall fuel-economy standards and converting to hybrids. "It's not a fair tradeoff to sacrifice kids' health to fight global warming, because we can do both." He stresses that biodiesel isn't a mainstream alternative in the U.S., where fewer and fewer passenger cars are diesel, as opposed to Europe, where an increasing number are.

Biodiesel advocates see this attitude as waiting too long for a clean-car future that's always just around the corner. "With all due respect to the Sierra Club, they've spent 20 years working on CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards], and here we are in 2003 and fuel efficiency is worse than ever," says Baker.

Viable alternative fuel or fringe green dream, at least it smells better.

In Miottel's biodiesel revolution, he imagines creating a fanciful line of specialty fuels for the individual driver's taste and mood: "You could actually do designer flavors for people, like perfume -- espresso roast for the yuppies, patchouli for all the hippie buses, maybe a little lavender if you're having a stressful day."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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