There's something about the infectious confidence of do-it-yourselfers that makes me feel like I can learn to build my own space rocket in the blink of an eye.
That's definitely the vibe I got when I pedaled up to the BioFuel Oasis in West Berkeley's light industrial district and met with three of the six women who run the worker-owned cooperative, which is doing so well it's in the market for new digs.
After pulling off the blue coveralls she wore for a Guardian photo shoot and quickly returning to a project she had going on the computer, Melissa Hardy tells me, "It's not that hard to work on the fuel delivery system of a car.... Let me just demystify that for you." Folks who haven't ventured under their own hood much may be put off knowing that the fuel filter and lines of their trusty old Mercedes-Benz could need changing if they make the switch to biodiesel, but Hardy likens these tasks to changing the tire on a bicycle.
Hardy met the women of BioFuel Oasis in the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective (www.berkeleybiodiesel.org), a group that promotes the use and creation of alternative energy through educational seminars. Before getting into biodiesel, Jennifer Radtke brewed her own wine and Gretchen Zimmermann always enjoyed tinkering with cars. They learned to make their own biodiesel while with the collective. Radtke then started BioFuel with SaraHope Smith, who no longer works with the group, in December 2003.
Thanks to them, diesel car owners can go to the BioFuel facilities garage and fill up on recycled oils processed from the greasy waste of a potato chip factory. At $3.70 per gallon, that's more than the falling diesel prices, currently $2.83 per gallon in California, but biodiesel drivers still get pretty good mileage — about 8 percent less than when they use regular diesel fuel — and they won't be contributing to asthma in children.
One reason the price is so high is lack of supply. After filling up his Mercedes 1980 240D and three five-gallon tubs for $113.40, customer Ryan Lamberg, who works with Community Fuels, a company in the process of building a biodiesel refinery, points out that the price can come down as more local farmers turn to growing feedstock crops.
As Radtke explains, the collective has "a commitment to selling biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil, because it is the most sustainable feedstock."
Though veggie oil has less than half the carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gas emissions of diesel fuel, it does release more nitrogen oxides than other fuels. Perhaps in recognition of this downside, the collective has been running a series of events called "Driving Still Sucks," which encourages people to continue to walk, bike, and bus.
"We think biodiesel is a transitional solution — not the answer," Radtke says.
Still, the group believes in its mission to provide an alternative fuel in an alternative way to meet the demands of green-minded Bay Area residents — not to mention Willie Nelson, who stops by to fill up every time he passes through town.
"We're busting at the seams," Hardy says. The collective currently is seeking a new, larger space to serve the 1,600-plus customers signed up with the co-op. "We want to create a place that isn't just a pump and run but more of a crossroads or meeting place, like a natural food store," Radtke says. SFBG
2465 Fourth St., Berk.