January 1, 2003

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opinion
My vegetarian car

SINCE THE SEPT . 11 attacks, I've wanted nothing to do with the oil industry. I want to disengage myself from the oil barons fueling a war machine that wages terror on the world. I used to lie awake at night, wondering what one person could do about the situation. Then I discovered biodiesel.

I'd heard the word before, mentioned as fuel for a recycling project, and I'd been told about a driver using it in Corvallis, Ore. But alternative technology has never been my thing, so I filed the information away with straw-bale houses and greywater systems.

But when I saw a "biodiesel car" for sale in November 2001, I realized it was the idea I'd been waiting for. For a thousand bucks, I kissed the oil industry good-bye and began driving a 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit that runs entirely on waste vegetable oil.

Biodiesel is my most quixotic dream come true. It's a fuel made from vegetable oil, preferably used, mixed with methanol (wood alcohol) and a touch of lye. Heat, stir, and voilà: vegetable fuel that runs in any diesel engine, with no conversion or expensive overhaul necessary.

It's actually not a new idea. When Rudolph Diesel first demonstrated his engine at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, he ran it on peanut oil.

Biodiesel is cheap. You can make it yourself. It smells like your favorite greasy donut shop. It's noncarcinogenic. Most important, since my conversion to biodiesel I am no longer an accomplice to the human and environmental destruction caused by oil exploration, transportation, and politics.

Over the past year, as I drove around the Bay Area in a junker with a sign that reads, "This car runs on veggie oil" in red letters above the bumper, the impact I made was tremendous. People stopped me in parking lots and at traffic lights to talk about biodiesel. In my vegetarian Rabbit, I presented an active solution to war profiteering and global warming.

In fact, to a lot of people, what I'd done was pretty radical – they saw buying a diesel car and putting in biodiesel fuel as a move that eclipsed the far more outlandish stunts I had undertaken.

Is this the perfect solution? Almost. Biodiesel comes from a renewable plant source and adds no new carbon to the atmosphere. Biodiesel reduces carcinogens of truck exhaust by 90 percent, carbon monoxide by 43 percent, and particulates by 55 percent, according to conservative figures released by the Environmental Protection Agency. No environmentally damaging drilling rigs are necessary, and no smog-spewing refineries are required.

Is there enough waste vegetable oil to run every vehicle in the United States on biodiesel? No. But solutions to the current energy crisis must be based on multiple resources, and this is a very good one. The downsides are that biodiesel doesn't reduce nitrous oxides (NOX), a major component of smog, and that, if made from virgin vegetable oil, biodiesel assumes the problems of industrial agriculture.

Biodiesel is available at a pump in San Francisco or Richmond (it's $3 a gallon, but I stopped drinking even the cheapest beers years ago). Or you can make it yourself. I started out buying biodiesel at a station at 23rd and 3rd Streets, but then I found out about the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective, a user-producer co-op that makes the fuel for low costs.

Why isn't everyone driving a biodiesel car? Well, a lot of people are: biodiesel is the fastest-growing alternative energy fuel. Berkeley's Ecology Center runs nine recycling trucks on the fuel, and the city is considering switching all diesel vehicles to biodiesel fuel.

But for too many, biodiesel isn't even on the radar, much less on the agenda. Has anyone suggested biodiesel to Muni, which operates 80 diesel buses? When I spoke with Muni's Maggie Lynch, she said the system was considering a long-term strategy to achieve zero emissions. While we await that lovely goal, why not have the buses smelling like donuts instead of pollution?

Bay Guardian intern Claudia Eyzaguirre is a writer, a bicyclist, and a member of the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective.