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Greasing the wheels: WNC residents trade petroleum for veggie oil

coverThere’s nothing Adam Bigelow likes better than a full tank of gas in the summertime with an open road ahead. After all, the drive from Sylva to Cashiers, where he works three days a week, is a beautiful, twisting mountain route that’s great for someone who wants to put their steering skills to the test. 

But Bigelow’s feel-good mood comes more from the contents of his tank than the places it’s getting him. He’s been driving a car powered by veggie oil for years, and he’s got nothing but good things to say about it. 

“They’re using a waste [product] and converting that into a resource, and I’m an advocate of that in all of its forms,” Bigelow said, starting off a lengthy reply to a simple query about what he likes about his car. “I feel really good when I fill up my tank, especially in the summer when the blend is 99 percent biodiesel from Asheville and 1 percent petroleum diesel. The money stays in my community, the money stays in Western North Carolina and goes to help support a business that is attempting to show us a sustainable way forward.”

Bigelow’s 2005 Volkswagon Jetta is the third biodiesel vehicle he’s had — biodiesel is basically veggie oil that’s been put through a chemical process to allow it to run in a regular diesel engine — and he doesn’t plan for it to be his last. A horticulturist who’s into organic gardening, he’s passionate about the social and environmental benefits of biodiesel, and the 42 miles per gallon he gets doesn’t hurt either. 

He’s so passionate, in fact, that after graduating from Haywood Community College’s horticulture program in 2008, he about-faced right back to the school to help build an on-campus biodiesel “refinery” in a project funded by the North Carolina Biofuels Center. While also working on his bachelor’s degree from Western Carolina University, Bigelow helped build a biodiesel reactor, which was used for both continuing education classes for community members who wanted to learn more and as an extra education opportunity for automotive students at HCC. 

“I personally taught one continuing education class, but I also taught the automotive technician instructors and came and helped them when they were first teaching it to their students,” Bigelow said. 

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It’s a skill, but it’s not rocket science, Bigelow said. With a little research and the right equipment, biodiesel is simple enough to make in any shed or garage.  

Hylah Birenbaum turned to that solution in 2007 when her family decided to spend some time roadtripping in the RV they’d bought a couple years prior.  

“When the economy tanked, prices went up to $4 a gallon for diesel,” Birenbaum said. With a 300-gallon tank, “that adds up very quickly.”

So, she bought a reactor, found someone to collect oil from and got to work. It ended up costing about 75 cents a gallon to make, a sweet deal in comparison to the pump price for diesel.  

It was a two-day process to take the oil from raw material to finished product, but Birenbaum was working from home, part time. She’d heat up the oil and then mix it with methanol and lye. That would cause the chemical reaction that turned the oil into biodiesel, and afterward she’d rinse the mixture twice, draining out the waste both times. The whole setup took up about half of one side of the two-car garage. 

Before heading out of town, she’d fill up the RV’s 300-gallon tank, load three 55-gallon drums of fuel into a trailer to go behind the RV and top it off with an electric vehicle towed along at the back. 

The RV ran “great,” Birenbaum said, but she doesn’t make her own biodiesel anymore. 

“It just was a messy project,” she said. 

Plenty of people wince at just dealing with the oil from one dinner’s worth of fried chicken. But a whole RV tank’s worth of used veggie oil, complete with stray bits of french fry and onion ring, has even more of an ick factor. That’s a lot of the reason why Bigelow’s given up on making his own fuel. 

“It’s a messy business,” he said. “I’m glad someone else is doing it.” 


Biofuel for the masses 

For Western North Carolina, that “someone else” is Blue Ridge Biofuels. Back when Birenbaum was filling up her 300-gallon RV tank, Blue Ridge was just getting on its legs as a company. But since its founding in 2005, the company has grown to produce about 500,000 gallons each year, contracting with about 1,000 area restaurants to buy their used oil. 

That’s a far cry from the company’s beginnings as a bunch of biodiesel enthusiasts creating the fuel in their own respective garages. 

“We thought it was the right thing to do and someone needed to be doing it,” said Woody Eaton, the company’s general manager. 

Nearly a decade later, the company’s doing quite well, but Eaton thinks there’s more going on than just one company’s success — he thinks that biodiesel use in general is on the rise. 

“I would definitely say there has been,” Eaton said when asked if it seems like there has been an increase in the number of people driving biodiesel vehicles. “We’ve been seeing pretty steady growth, and then you’re seeing a lot of large fleets start to use biodiesel as a way to reduce carbon emissions.”

Nearby organizations that use biodiesel for certain fleets include Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mission Hospital, Hendersonville and Buncombe County. 


Pump prices

Some of the increase Blue Ridge has seen has to do with high petroleum prices. Though biodiesel is currently more expensive than petroleum diesel, historically it’s been a bit cheaper, and in general the price doesn’t fluctuate nearly as much as do prices for petroleum products. Prices are controlled by more localized, predictable forces than the inscrutable international trade organizations, government relations and speculators that influence petroleum prices.

Outside influences do affect biodiesel prices too, however. Tax credits, combined with a requirement for petroleum refiners and importers to integrate a certain amount of renewable energy — read, biodiesel — into their product had provided some extra income to biodiesel producers. 

But recently, those breaks haven’t come through. The tax credit expired last year, and the Environmental Protection Agency has been lagging behind on announcing how much renewable energy petroleum companies need to buy, Eaton said. 

How it had typically worked, he said, was that biodiesel companies like Blue Ridge would get a renewable identification number, called an RIN, and then sell it to refiners and importers who are responsible for blending a certain amount of biodiesel fuel into their diesel. It’s a system that works, Eaton says, but it hasn’t been working lately because the EPA hasn’t been releasing the volumes that petroleum companies are required to buy. Thus, higher prices. 

“It’s probably one of the biggest issues in the industry right now,” Eaton said. 

The business is still doing plenty well, though. Blue Ridge has just signed a contract with Waynesville’s Peak Energy to expand its delivery capability, and it’s getting ready to move its production to a larger facility in Catawba County, though keeping its distribution, oil processing and administration facilities in Asheville. 


Healthy competition 

With more and more restaurants signing with Blue Ridge, the landscape has gotten a little more competitive for do-it-yourself biofuel users. 

“I’ve not talked with anybody, but my thoughts are that it’s a little bit harder unless you’re involved in something that’s generating a large amount of grease,” Bigelow said. 

The Smoky Mountain News tried to talk to someone who still collects her own oil for this story, but that source proved elusive. Most people interviewed for the story were able to turn up some references to people they know who used to collect their own oil but were unable to name anyone who does so currently. It’s hard to say for sure why that is, or to determine conclusively whether the difficulty in locating oil collectors is merely coincidence. 

But it could have something to do with the increased competition for oil now that more and more restaurants have contracts with companies like Blue Ridge Biofuels, and the fact that it’s now easier to buy fuel that’s already processed. All of those interviewed for this story had at one time processed their own oil, and they all agreed that it’s not a pleasant task. 

“It’s a nasty, gross thing dealing with waste vegetable oil. It’s gross,” Bigelow said. “It does make you crave french fries a lot.”


Giving it straight 

That doesn’t seem to bother Oren Kleinberger, whose company Veggie Oil Conversions converts cars to run on veggie oil and collects oil — together with whatever grease and animal fat winds up in the mix — from restaurants in the Atlanta area to sell throughout Atlanta and Asheville. Kleinberger and his wife Jill Gottesman, who works out of The Wilderness Society’s Sylva office, both drive veggie-powered cars. 

Unlike Blue Ridge Biofuels, Kleinberger’s process skips the steps of mixing the oil with methanol and lye and doesn’t dilute the veggie oil with petroleum diesel at all. Instead, he filters and dewaters oil straight from the fryer to go in a car that’s had a second tank installed in it for the veggie oil. 

“You start your engine on diesel or biodiesel, and once your engine warms up, you switch to using 100 percent vegetable oil,” Kleinberger said. 

Kleinberger is all about using straight veggie oil, but others are more hesitant. It’s not a federally recognized fuel, and running it will void most car warranties. 

“You have more problems using that than people do using biodiesel,” said Bill Eaker, Waynesville resident and coordinator of the Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition. 

But Kleinberger swears by it. Unlike biodiesel, which congeals in cold weather and therefore has to be mixed with some ratio of petroleum diesel to run its best, straight veggie oil stays liquid and doesn’t need to be diluted. And because it’s a one-ingredient recipe, it’s a lot easier for do-it-yourselfers to handle than biodiesel, which requires more knowledge and equipment. 

“Most of our customers collect their own oil from a local restaurant and filter it on their own,” Kleinberger said. “It is a very easy process.”

Easy on the car, too, Kleinberger said. He’s had cars travel over 200,000 miles on vegetable oil, and converted cars generally aren’t new when they take on their first tank of vegetable oil.

Kleinberger and Gottesman drive 80s-model Mercedes, and one of Kleinberger’s favorite cars to convert is the 1999 Mercedes E300 series — not the newest models. 

But for those who rely on their own oil-collecting prowess to run, the landscape has gotten a bit more challenging. 

“There is a little more competition for the oil from restaurants in recent years,” Kleinberger said. 

No longer just a waste product, most restaurants contract with a company to sell their used oil off, making the landscape harder for individuals looking to power a single car. But not impossible.  

“Most of the time, you can look around and find a restaurant that is willing to work with you,” Kleinberger said. “You may have to pay them a little for their oil, and you have to promise that you will be reliable at collecting the oil, as this is one of the most important parts of the oil collection service for a restaurant.”


A lot to laud

Though a competitive landscape may cause some frustration to a veggie car driver trying to fill his tank, biofuel proponents overall agree that the push is a good thing. When gas prices rose between 2005 and 2007, Kleinberger said, there was “a big surge” of people who moved to biofuel, and since then the numbers have seemed to stay pretty steady. For the environment, each of those biofuel-burning cars is a win.  

“It’s biodegradable. It reduces emissions. Our farmers can grow it and we can turn it into fuel,” Eaton said. 

Of course, that last part is also true for ethanol, a corn-based fuel, which has been criticized for pushing up food prices by cutting into the supply of corn available for consumption. But veggie oil-run cars are different, because they’re not using oil that was produced for the purpose of fueling cars, and therefore they’re not cutting into food supplies, taking up land or using fertilizer. They’re giving a waste product a second life. 

“The carbon that comes out the tailpipe of a veggie car was carbon that the plants pulled from the atmosphere last year during their growing cycle,” Kleinberger said, explaining that veggie oil is a carbon-neutral fuel. 

In addition, the fuel is nontoxic and less flammable than other fuels — “you can literally eat it,” Kleinberger said — so its environmental risk is much lower than that of petroleum. And, of course, the supply doesn’t depend on foreign countries that may or may not have the best interests of the U.S. at heart. 

So there’s a lot to laud, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that biofuel is a cure-all for America’s energy needs. For one thing, there’s only so much used veggie oil to go around. If everyone in WNC suddenly switched to biofuel, restaurant waste would be maxed out and farmers would have to grow crops specifically for oil production in order to meet the demand. Though the oil from soybeans, for example, accounts for only 20% of the product — the meal could still be used separately — that would negate some of the positive environmental effects of biofuel. The carbon footprint would grow to include the energy spent to produce and transport the crop, and production would compete with food needs to some degree. 

“Biodiesel offers a solution,” Eaton said. “It’s not the end-all solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Bigelow agrees that biofuel isn’t the perfect answer — he says he’s still hoping for “some great x fuel that someone would invent out on the horizon” — but for now it’s a pretty good one. 

His car is road-tested, having driven from North Carolina to Wisconsin and back running biodiesel nearly all the way — it’s easier than you’d think to find fueling stations, he said — and says he’s enjoying better gas mileage and a quieter engine. 

“It has cascading benefits that I try to incorporate into my life,” Bigelow said. 


Where can I buy it? 

West of Asheville, biodiesel is available at the pump only at Catamount Pump & Go in Sylva. But Blue Ridge Biofuels, 828.253.1034, delivers upon request in most locations in Western North Carolina. 

As for straight veggie oil, individuals able to track down a restaurant not already under contract for its oils can get that direct. Otherwise, it can be ordered from Veggie Oil Conversions, 678.643.4171.



What’s it all mean?

Someone who wants to start powering a vehicle with vegetable oil has two choices: biodiesel or straight vegetable oil. While vegetable oil is the main component of the fatty fuel, animal fats burn fine too, so it’s no problem if they wind up mixed into the veggie oil. 

Straight veggie oil is just what it sounds like: Once the french fries are done, the oil is simply filtered, dewatered and poured into the tank of a diesel car that’s been retrofitted with a tank to hold veggie oil. To start it up, the driver has to warm up the engine on diesel or biodiesel and then switch to veggie oil for the drive.

Biodiesel is veggie oil that’s been put through a chemical reaction that allows it to go right in the fuel tank of a diesel vehicle. The reaction can take place in a garage workshop or in an industrial facility. To make biodiesel, oil is heated up, mixed with a catalyst to cause a low-key chemical reaction and then filtered to get all the “extra” stuff out. While straight veggie oil is not a federally approved fuel, biodiesel is and can be sold from gas pumps alongside regular 87. 

Biodiesel can be blended with petroleum diesel to create any ratio desired. B20, which is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel, is the most commonly used blend. Lower percentages of biodiesel have the benefit of staying liquid at cooler temperatures, as biodiesel tends to start clouding up at about 34 degrees and solidify somewhere in the teens. 

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