Fill 'er up with Krispy Kreme
By Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon
March 27, 2003; AlterNet
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
Warning: Making biodiesel in your blender can cause problems
for your margaritas
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
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
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
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
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."
[Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon
Technology. This article originally appeared in Salon and is
used with permission. Copyright 2003 Salon Media Group.]
© 2003 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.