In Fiona Sinclair’s back yard, a long sausage-shaped filter suspended above a plastic bucket drips and plops, plops, plops thick, golden droplets of a fluid she says could be the fuel of the future.
The fluid is used vegetable oil. Its destination is the red tank stuck into the trunk of a modified Volkswagen Jetta sitting in Sinclair’s driveway. Its mission: to change the way Americans think about getting around.
“I’ve hooked into grease and biodiesel because it would provide enough fuel for a combined individual-public transportation system,” says the Ph.D. instructor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. “We can no longer get our resources from far away. . . . There’s got to be some sort of shift.”
Sinclair isn’t alone in her quest.
Whether straight vegetable oil or its chemically refined version commonly called biodiesel, more New Mexico residents and companies are buying, selling or – if you’re a restaurant trying to get rid of grease – giving away the alternative fuel that burns cleaner than regular diesel.
For some, it’s a cheaper choice than diesel or gasoline. But even when it costs more, biodiesel users, buyers and sellers say the true satisfaction comes from doing their small part to wean America off increasingly expensive crude oil and keep the world cleaner.
Business is getting brisk.
A growing phenomenon
“We’ve seen such an increase in usage, the plants just can’t keep up with production,” says Linda Randolph, wholesale sales manager for Ever-Ready Oil Co. “We’ve had it for over 3, 4 years. Now all of sudden people want it.”
The company’s pump at the corner of Mountain Road N.E. and 1st Street N.W. delivers a mixture of biodiesel – 20 percent of the mix – and regular diesel – 80 percent of the mix – for about 30 cents more per gallon than straight diesel, Randolph says.
Individual sales at the only biodiesel pump in Albuquerque have held steady, she says. It’s her company’s wholesale sales that have been jumping.
In 2005, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, Santa Fe Southern Railway and Sandia National Laboratories began regularly using biodiesel. Go back a year and the city of Albuquerque had begun pumping the fuel into some of its vehicles. Go back to 2003, and you’ll see the the start-up of the University of New Mexico’s alternative fuel efforts.
But when biodiesel costs more than regular diesel, why the growth?
“The older diesels, they’ve got that kind of rattle to them,” says Richard Mason, executive director of Renewable Energy Partners of New Mexico, a nonprofit promoting renewable fuel sources for transportation and electrical generation. “They’ll fill up with the biodiesel and their engine will just smooth out.”
Besides being easier on engines, biodiesel emits fewer pollutants than regular diesel, he says. It reduces the country’s dependency on foreign oil because it can be made from locally grown plants. And, according to at least one driver, it gets better mileage, he says.
“I think these things are going to lead toward a future where you might not even find regular diesel,” he says. “Some blend of biodiesel might become standard.”
At one of Renewable Energy Partners’ three biofuel pumps in Santa Fe – one of which was added in early October to satisfy demand – about 7,000 gallons of biodiesel are being sold a month, he says. That’s up from the 4,000 gallons a month sold when the pump opened in September 2004.
Biofuels refer to biodiesel and fuels with ethanol mixed in.
The organization is also consulting a company about opening two biofuel pumps in Taos. And another biofuel pump may join Albuquerque, along Central Avenue near UNM, he says.
“It’s just about to become a widespread phenomenon as opposed to a very exotic, niche-type of fuel that it is now,” he says. “You’re really going to witness a revolution in biofuels in the next year.”
Nationwide, production of biodiesel is expected to double this year from last year’s 25 million gallons, says Jenna Higgins, director of communications for the National Biodiesel Board.
“Domestic energy security is taking on more importance in the minds of many Americans and with congressional leaders as well,” she says. “A lot of people are starting to recognize biodiesel as a serious player in our nation’s energy plan.”
Belen resident Tom Welch began using biodiesel in his energy plan seven months ago.
His domestic supplier? Local restaurants.
For Welch, used cooking oil is like liquid money.
With some refinement, he can take what restaurants throw away and turn it into truck-powering fuel. It cut down his Belen-Albuquerque commute bill to $20 a week from more than $100.
“When I heard about it, it was fascinating,” he says, pointing out he invested about $3,000 for biodiesel preparation equipment. “You could make your own fuel.”
It’s a good deal for restaurants, too.
Yashoda Naidoo, owner of Annapurna Chai House in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, estimates it would cost up to $135 month to have a company pick up the used cooking oil at her restaurants. With individual motorists coming by, it costs her nothing and gives back in intangible ways.
“We’re trying to be fully sustainable,” she says. “I feel better when I give it to individuals than when I give it to a company.”
At Flying Star Caf?, the story is slightly different.
The Flying Star restaurants around town don’t so much give the oil away as have it taken, says Clint Eatherton, vice president of operations for Flying Star Caf? and Satellite Coffee.
That works out great, Eatherton says, as long as grease scavengers let the restaurant know what they’re doing.
“The less we have to pump out through our service, the less money we’re paying,” he says. “It costs us $25 a month to have it pumped out, so we’re not going to get rich one way or the other.”
Sinclair with UNM says such steps are a good start to addressing transportation costs in American society.
But the real solution involves more than cheaper and environmentally friendly fuels, she says.
It calls for a new understanding of how not only Americans travel, but how the growing number of middle class members in countries such as China and India travel too.
“If we’re all thinking in 20, 30 years we can have access to this one car and just go . . . I am one that is really stressing the need to put money in public transportation systems and run them on alternative energies,” she says. “We can’t all drive vehicles. It’s part of a larger picture of consuming resources on the planet.”
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Before you throw out the oil you just fried tortillas in, consider this: It can also be refined to make biodiesel, a cleaner-burning fuel that is powering up more diesel engines in New Mexico.
Ponds of power: Algae, the aquatic organism that’s happy in swimming pools and oceans, could, with more research, provide billions of gallons of biodiesel on relatively small plots of land that food crops couldn’t use anyway, according to federal government studies.
Cleaning house: Pure biodiesel emits 67 percent less cancer-causing hydrocarbons and 48 percent less carbon monoxide than conventional diesel. But nitrogen-oxide emissions – the stuff that can make smog – go up by 10 percent with pure biodiesel.
Growing interest: In 2005, PNM, Sandia National Laboratories and the Santa Fe Southern Railway began regularly using biodiesel. The Duke City began in 2004, and UNM’s foray into the alternative fuel started in 2003.
Chicken fried steak, anyone?: Used cooking oil – with refinement – can power up diesel engines. For restaurants, that’s money saved on oil-collection costs. For biodiesel fans, it’s fuel for free.
FACTBOX: GET IT HERE:
So you’ve got a diesel engine and you’re ready to switch to biodiesel. Where do you go to fuel up? Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, there are two choices:
* Albuquerque: Ever-Ready Oil Co., 1200 1st St. N.W.
* Santa Fe: Baca St. Biofuels Station, 1229 Cerrillos Road
FACTBOX: DIESEL vs. BIODIESEL:
Besides being easier on engines, biodiesel has, in many cases, fewer emissions than diesel. Here’s a comparison of the two:
* Pure biodiesel (B100) emits 67 percent less hydrocarbons – which include cancer-causing compounds – than conventional diesel.
* Pure biodiesel emits 48 percent less carbon monoxide – a poisonous, odorless, colorless gas – than conventional diesel.
* Pure biodiesel emits 10 percent more nitrogen oxide – which can form smog – than conventional diesel.
Source: National Biodiesel Board, Environmental Protection Agency
SIDEBAR: WHAT IS IT?
Biodiesel is oil – taken from animal fats or plants such as soybeans, sunflowers and rapeseed – that works as a fuel for diesel engines.
It is often refined by a chemical process to improve its usability, but this step isn’t necessary for it to serve as a fuel.
The chemically refined oil is regularly called “biodiesel” while the unrefined oil commonly gets labeled “straight vegetable oil,” or, if it’s been used for cooking, “grease” or “waste vegetable oil.”
Much biodiesel – the chemically refined oil – for sale is combined with regular diesel to make a mixture labeled according to the percentage of biodiesel in it. So a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel would be called B20. Pure biodiesel would be B100.
Using straight vegetable oil in diesel engines is possible, but problematic.
Unrefined vegetable oil lacking additives thickens more easily in cold weather and can gum up or damage an engine’s components. As a result, drivers who scavenge used cooking oil from restaurants – or buy a gallon from the grocery store – often add second tanks to their cars. One tank holds and heats the vegetable oil. The other tank holds regular diesel fuel, which is used to start the car and to cleanse the engine’s innards of vegetable oil before the car is shut off. Used cooking oil requires thorough filtration to remove trouble-causing solids. French fries, anyone?
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