Yesterday, Nathaniel Stephens drove to Mexico to have a chunk of skin cancer carved out of his shoulder. Next week, he's flying to Alaska, where he'll spend the summer guiding tourists through the wilderness. Today, however, he's on a different kind of adventure-a stealth mission to siphon waste vegetable oil from behind local restaurants; he'll use it to power his 1977 diesel Mercedes 'greasemobile.'
It seems 6:30 a.m. is an ideal time for grease collecting. It's early enough not to attract curious bystanders, but not such a dark hour that rummaging around in back alleys invites trouble.
Stephens kicks off his clogs and drives barefoot. Having spent most of his life outdoors, he appears a bit older than his 34 years. The wrinkles around his big blue eyes deepen every time he smiles, and gray has spread through his dirty blond hair. His body also reflects his lifestyle-stubble covers his cheeks, a spotty tan connects his freckles and his hands are strong and callused. Like Stephens, the greasemobile is sturdy and weathered. The windshield is dusty, the center console is sprinkled with sand, and a faded red dog collar dangles from the rearview mirror.
With the exception of an empty container of Magic Salad vegetable oil resting on the backseat, his entire grease-gathering system is neatly contained within the trunk, a practice he honed last year when he drove the greasemobile all the way to Alaska and back, powered only by reclaimed veggie oil.
Stephens and his relatively small community of greasers represent the most hardcore end of the alternative-fuel-consumer spectrum. (Using non-taxed fuel is actually illegal in many states; in some cases, uninformed drivers striving to be creative and eco-friendly have been caught unawares and heftily fined for tax evasion.) But not everybody has to break laws or go scrounging through back alleys to be a part of the alternative-fuel movement. Biodiesel, ethanol and natural gas are three federally regulated options that are becoming increasingly available at the consumer level, though the variables related to each are dizzying (see the sidebar on Page 14).
Each type of alternative fuel has its own passionate advocates, but the wider alt-fuel community seems to agree that none of the existing options are the silver bullet that's going to save the world from its petroleum dependence. That said, they're also united in their belief that all petroleum-free fuels ought to be used in the meantime to stimulate the expansion of alternative-fuel markets, industries and technologies.
Alt-fuel consumers probably won't comprise only die-hard environmentalists for long-as petroleum prices steadily increase, it's likely that more and more people will begin considering alternative fuels out of economic necessity.
When it comes to cities and citizens transitioning en masse to alternative fuels, San Diego appears to be trailing a bit behind bigger cities in California and the Pacific Northwest. However, as CityBeat recently found out, the local alt-fuel scene does have a pulse-and it's only getting stronger.
Stephens' conversion to the grease-gathering life happened fairly recently. Up until a year and a half ago, he was just another outdoorsy guy with a Toyota Tacoma and a guilty conscience.
'I loved the truck, but it was a ridiculous city car,' he says. 'I was riding my bike as much as I could, but I still needed to get around in a vehicle, and I really wanted to do something that was cheaper and more environmentally friendly.'
He toyed with the idea of buying a hybrid, but didn't like that they ultimately require petroleum. The fact that waste vegetable oil can currently be obtained for free eventually tipped the scale. Stephens understands that he still pays for his fuel with time and effort, but he doesn't seem to mind.
'It's become a hobby for me, really,' he says. 'It's fun for me; I get all excited when I come upon a big stash.'
Rebecca Pozorski shares Stephens' concerns for the environment but isn't willing to go to such great lengths to get her earth-friendly fuel. After moving to San Diego two years ago, the 27-year-old Wisconsin native traded in her Honda Civic for a 1982 Mercedes Benz 240D that she runs on biodiesel. (Because biodiesel is a refined version of vegetable oil, Pozorski didn't have to make any conversions to her engine like Stephens did.) Instead of fueling up behind restaurants, Pozorski gets her biodiesel from a pump at Pearson Fuels on El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights, which is currently the only biodiesel pump in San Diego and the only ethanol pump in California.
Pozorski matches perfectly the stereotypical image of a biodiesel consumer. A slim, soft-spoken vegetarian with a degree in horticulture, she works at an indigenous-plant nursery, grows organic vegetables at home, has three kinds of composting systems in her Golden Hill backyard and often finds herself longing for the unsullied landscapes of her Midwestern youth.
'You could drink tap water and it was so good,' she recalls. 'You could put your hands in the dirt, and it was, like, clean. I would totally eat the dirt there. I would not eat the dirt here.'
Pozorski's alt-fuel vehicle hasn't taken her quite as far as Alaska. She drove it to Los Angeles once but is hesitant to take it on voyages much longer than that. Still, even though her car is pokey and somewhat unreliable, for Pozorksi it's still the best alternative.
'It can be really overwhelming when I start thinking about what we've done to the oceans, what we're doing to the sky, and all the concrete we put on the earth,' she says. 'I try to make changes, but I have to function in this world. I still have to go to work, and how do I get to work in a sustainable way?'
Mike Lewis, owner and general manager of Pearson Fuels, says there hasn't yet been large numbers of San Diegans concerned enough with sustainability to make lifestyle changes like Pozorski's. He tracks the number of biodiesel users in the county by having each first-time customer join a biodiesel-users group-there are currently about 500 people on the list.
That number, Lewis says, is much lower than it could be.
'Every day I could count hundreds of diesel vehicles driving by my office here,' Lewis says. 'Every one of those could come and buy biodiesel right now, and our biodiesel has no petroleum in it. None. Now the cost difference, it costs 40 cents a gallon more [than regular diesel]. So you have to want to do it.'
The way Lewis tells it, most local alt-fuel consumers are motivated more by economics than environmental concerns.
'When ethanol's more expensive than gasoline, we don't sell any,' Lewis says. 'I mean, zero. But then, if it's got a good price advantage, we'll sell 500 gallons a day. So it's all cost driven. And I can tell you that I've never seen a city vehicle put ethanol in their vehicle in four years here.'
The city of San Diego has taken a few steps to reduce petroleum dependence. As of September 2006, half the city's 720 buses had been converted to run on compressed natural gas and propane. But some obstructions block the way to a complete transition to alternative fuels.
As the city's general-services fleet manager, Daro Quiring oversees one third of the city's fleet. Police and fire vehicles have traditionally been managed separately, though they're currently in the process of being consolidated into one department.
Quiring has only 10 hybrids-which aren't actually considered alt-fuel vehicles-in his fleet of 2,500 vehicles. (That number will increase as more vehicles come up for replacement.)
'We had a study done, I guess it was about eight years ago, that [asked]: What would it cost us to change over our entire fleet to compressed natural gas and put in the fueling stations and all that,' Quiring says. 'And for our fleet of about 2,500, it would have cost about $30 million, on top of just replacing the vehicles as they are.'
They tried running some trucks on compressed natural gas, but those tanks went bad, says Quiring. He adds that the city recently tried running some trash trucks on liquid natural gas, but the engines haven't worked and it's ended up costing the city more. That project will expire in six months and will not be renewed.
'There are other alternative fuels out there, but we're not using them because of the issue of reliability and cost and infrastructure,' Quiring says. 'There aren't service stations throughout the city or the county that provide ethanol or that provide compressed natural gas.'
County fleet manager John Clements, who also serves on the San Diego Regional Clean Cities Coalition-a volunteer group whose goal is to increase the use of alt-fuels and decrease the use of petroleum-says he's striving to make his fleet greener. Nine of the 12 vehicles in the county's mail-services fleet now run on compressed natural gas, and last year 125 vehicles eligible for replacement-about 33 percent of the fleet-were replaced by hybrids.
Clements says he faces a lot of the same issues as Quiring when it comes to alternative fuels.
'The availability of vehicles and refueling infrastructure are two huge obstacles for any fleet,' he says. 'We're still putting some hybrids in our law-enforcement fleet, but obviously we're not going to buy a compressed natural gas Ford Crown Victoria patrol car when it won't go far enough where there's not fueling stations for emergency use.'
Clements says that because his fleet consists of many vehicles that service the nether regions of the county, reliability is also a big concern.
'I think biodiesel is getting there; I'm just a little afraid to implement it system-wide right now because of the potential problems,' Clements adds. 'Anything we do, because we go so through so much fuel, so many products and services, we're really leery of introducing something unless it's really a proven product.'
Nathaniel Stephens pulls the greasemobile to a stop behind a Japanese restaurant in Pacific Beach. He likes sushi places the most for the quality of their grease, but he's not picky. He's gotten grease from fish 'n' chips shacks, breweries and fine-dining restaurants. As he likes to say, 'The grease is everywhere.'
The grease may be everywhere, but it's steadily becoming much more of a commodity. During the past 10 years, beginning in Hawaii and spreading across the Pacific Northwest, people have begun large-scale collection of waste vegetable oil, rendering it into biodiesel and selling it to individual consumers and municipal fleets.
Portland-based SeQuential Biofuels is one such company. For the past five years, it's been selling locally harvested biodiesel in bulk and at varying levels of concentration to fleets and to individual drivers at 35 retail pumps across the state.
The company owes much of its growth to state-mandated renewable-fuel standards, but Tomas Endicott, SeQuential's co-founder and managing partner, says most of the company's success has come from marketing.
'My mantra for five years has been awareness, availability and advocacy,' Endicott says. 'Once people know that it is what it is... they use it if they can get it in a convenient way. It's really just been a matter of going out there and proving that the market exists, and that's what we've done here.'
Endicott has big projections for SeQuential's expansion. He estimates that once Portland's renewable-fuel standard goes into effect this July, the demand for biodiesel could increase from 2 million to nearly 7 million gallons in the next year. It sounds like a lot, but Endicott points out that Oregon currently consumes about 700 million gallons of diesel each year. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Oregon consumed about 1.5 billion gallons of motor gasoline in 2006; that same year, California consumed almost 16 billion gallons of gasoline for motor-vehicle purposes alone.
Until recently, the only San Diegans collecting waste vegetable oil for fuel were scavengers like Stephens. But Nicole Kennard, co-founder and president of the local biodiesel production company New Leaf Bio Fuel, is starting to change that.
While getting her master's degree in mechanical engineering from SDSU, Kennard and co-founder David Richards both worked with a group that audited local manufacturing facilities, attempting to help them become more energy efficient and transition to the use of renewable fuels. The pair was talking about using biodiesel to heat one facility when it occurred to them there was no need to wait around for someone else to start an operation like Portland's SeQuential.
Richards had experience-he helped design a waste vegetable oil rendering company in Humboldt County called Footprint Recycling-so he and Kennard started contacting local restaurants to get a sense of the volume of waste oil they might be able to harvest. They quickly found more than 100 local restaurants willing to start contributing.
'We really had to dive in at that point to be able to support the interest that the restaurants had, and we wanted to be able to do it right away,' Kennard explained over a cup of afternoon tea in her small, jasmine-scented backyard in Pacific Beach. 'So we pretty much started that business last summer, and that was kind of a big deal. That was a big step.'
The waste oil that they've collected and processed into biodiesel over the past year has been split between fueling their own fleet of collection vehicles and undergoing testing to make sure that the product they eventually sell back to the community is up to par.
Kennard says New Leaf is in final negotiations with the city of San Diego for the location of their processing facility, which is projected to be run off the grid on completely self-sustainable energy and is slated to be completed by early 2008.
Even once they're processing the oil at commercial volumes, it'll take a while for New Leaf to service as many retail consumers as SeQuential does. Unlike Oregon, California currently has a ban that restricts the sale of new diesel passenger vehicles, so anyone looking to drive on biodiesel has to be willing to buy a used car. But many municipal and commercial fleets-like school buses, construction vehicles and even fishing boats-already run on diesel, so Kennard says they'll be New Leaf's initial targets. She speculates that when New Leaf does start producing fuel, they'll be able to provide pure biodiesel to a few thousand individual users and around 20 fleets.
Kennard understands that in the beginning, the fuel they generate will only make a tiny scratch in the local demand for diesel fuel.
'I feel like I'm doing a pretty big thing, and then sometimes it feels like, is this even going to work? Is this even going to affect change?' she admits. 'And then I wake up the next day and I'm excited about it. Maybe just doing something rather than nothing makes it worth it, and makes the days easier.'
Endicott, her Portland counterpart, also remains optimistic.
'I think the most important part about biofuels is that they're a bridge fuel,' Endicott says. 'They're not a silver bullet. They're not going to solve all our energy issues. But they do an amazing job of opening people's minds to the idea that there are conventional fuels that they could use today that are not gasoline or diesel.'
Environmental concerns notwithstanding, Endicott points out that economic incentives might also lead to the development of biofuel technology.
'This is a great place to start, a place to invest capital, to create market share,' he says. 'Given American ingenuity, we'll find new ways to get there as time goes on.'
Removing the lid from a dirty green barrel, Stephens peers down at the dark honey-colored grease that fills nearly two thirds of the drum.
'This is the fanciest stuff in town,' he declares proudly, explaining that most fast-food restaurants use partially hydrogenated oils that have a thicker, creamier consistency. One side effect of searching for fuel in alleys, he adds, is a more graphic understanding of places he would and wouldn't like to eat.
'What's good for the car is good for the body,' Stephens says. 'The oil that I'm looking for is non-trans-fat, pure vegetable oil. So if I go into an alley and look into a dumpster and see real creamy looking semi-solid oil, I know that it won't be good in my car and also I wouldn't want to eat there.'
His collection process is surprisingly simple. Keeping the engine idling, he pulls on some grease-soaked gloves and attaches a pump to the car battery. The pump is connected to a hose; one end goes into the barrel, the other deposits the oil into empty plastic five-gallon cartons. The process takes less than five minutes.
He can't put the oil straight from the barrel into his tank. It has to be filtered once, but Stephens says that process is also fairly straightforward and can be performed on the road as long as the sun is out and the oil can warm slightly.
'I set up a gravity-feed system, just wherever I am, at a rest stop or in a city park or something and pour the oil through,' he says. 'It's sort of low-tech.'
Though he has a few more cartons to fill, he's careful not to drain any drum all the way to the bottom, where filter-clogging sediment lurks. Instead, he folds his materials back into the trunk and motors down the road to another choice location. The heavy scent of grease fills the air while his engine idles, powering the pump as 10 more gallons are stealthily harvested.
A week later, a different kind of alt-fuel field trip took place as Rebecca Jones' sixth-grade class embarked on a journey to the San Diego Environmental Foundation's Eco Center. Coming from a relatively well-funded elementary school in Carmel Valley, most of these children have grown up in two- and three-car households, one of which more often than not includes an SUV.
Twelve-year-old Jenny Guillen says her mom drives an Expedition and her dad drives a Hummer. She has a basic understanding of the precariousness of the alt-fuel industry-'If we used corn for fuel, how would we get tortillas?' she points out-but says that when she's old enough to drive, she wants either a Jaguar or an Escalade.
'I want a car that can hold a lot of stuff and still get good mileage,' says 13-year-old Nathan Asaro.
'Oil is scarce and it's bad for the environment,' Asaro recites. 'We need to find a better source.'
At the Eco Center, the class receives a whirlwind lesson on pollution, alternate fuels and petroleum independence. Educational director Judy Bishop, who wears a blue lab coat and a nametag that proclaims her 'Miss Ethanol,' hopes they'll retain at least a portion of the lesson and educate their gas-guzzling parents.
'The kids are interested-I mean, they're like little sponges,' Bishop says. 'I do believe if they do talk to their parents, they're going to be questioning, ‘Hey, mom and dad, how come we have seven cars and there's only two of us driving?''
When the sponges arrive at the Eco Center-which shares a site with Pearson Fuels on El Cajon Boulevard-they are audibly disappointed to have arrived at a gas station. But their complaints diminish as they're whisked into an amphitheatre where they're shown a 20-minute video that outlines the mounting problems associated with petroleum dependence. They're then split into two groups, which Miss Ethanol and her young, similarly lab-coated assistant, Miss Biodiesel, take through rotating workshops designed to give them a more hands-on understanding of alternative fuels.
'We're neutral in the respect that as an educational program, we support educating the next generation-again, you're 10, that gasoline is icky and anything else is worth taking a look at,' Bishop explains. 'And we're non-discriminatory on which particular one.'
Activities include scrambling through an inflatable maze where they hunt for placards describing the various sources of alternative fuels, sending e-mails to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and constructing an 'eco-arch' out of foam blocks that each represent one component of sustainable living.
The kids express the most delight when Bishop whizzes past on an electric Segway, one of those stand-up sidewalk-transportation vehicles.
'Could you invent something cooler that would work better?' Bishop asks the children as she dismounts. 'Yes, you can.'
On the ride back to Carmel Valley, the class seems more inspired by the looming prospect of lunch than the future of alternative fuels.
But Bishop isn't completely naïve-she gives the same tour to kids from all over the county every week. She just steamrolls right over their restlessness, hell-bent on delivering her pitch in the hopes that least some small piece of it might take root somewhere in their developing brains.
'The next generation's gonna walk in, and say ‘OK, I'd like to buy a car,'' Bishop explains. 'And [the dealer] is going to say, ‘Would you like this car?' and the kid's gonna say, ‘I went to a place one time, something about gasoline. Oh yeah, it's not good. Sorry, I'm not buying your car.''
Grease-harvest completed, Stephens stops at a gas station to wash his windshield and pour some previously filtered free grease into his tank.
'Look at all those people queuing up for fuel,' he says with a smile. 'Suckers!'
Driving away from the gas station, Stephens says the best thing about switching to grease-fuel is that he no longer feels like he needs to avoid driving at all costs.
'I know that I won't ever have a gasoline car again, so I'll keep doing this until we have some kind of better technology,' he says.
Stephens and Pozorski both say it pains them to be complicit-in any capacity-in the world's mounting environmental problems. But one common denominator among these alt-fuelers is a refreshing degree of optimism.
'It seems like there are enough like-minded people, too, that eventually things are going to have to change,' says Stephens. 'We're clever enough to solve a lot of the problems that we've created, so that gives me hope.'
'I can change aspects of my life and how I live my life and then maybe people will look at me and be, like, ‘Oh, that's really cool, you do what? Wow, OK, that's different, how interesting,'' says Pozorski. 'It's just small, little things.'
Judy Bishop clearly believes in the potential of future generations to create change.
'We are an inventive people; we can do it, and I don't just mean America,' she says. 'Have it be a possibility and people will meet the challenge; they just need to know what the challenge is, and the challenge is petroleum independence. Worldwide.'
A crash course in alternative fuels
Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO)
Emissions (compared to petroleum): Sulfur-free and carbon-neutral
Sustainability: There's more than enough tempura grease to power the renegade souls willing to use it, but there isn't enough fried food on the planet to completely replace petroleum.
Affordability: Free, but not technically legal.
Pain-in-the-ass factor: Medium to high.
Positives: Quality WVO is only as far away as your favorite sushi joint, and diesel can still be used if you run out or don't have time to filter your WVO.
Negatives: Converting a diesel engine to run on WVO requires a small financial investment. If not properly filtered and stored, WVO can collect bacteria and become rancid, and a vehicle's warranty could be voided if WVO damages fuel-system components.
Emissions: Reduced carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulates. Same or possibly increased amounts of nitrogen oxide
Sustainability: Waste vegetable oil is converted to biodiesel through a chemical process called transesterification, but a lot of biodiesel comes straight from the plants currently used to make cooking oil. If all oils that are now used for cooking (like soy, peanut and palm) were used to completely replace petroleum, the value of those resources would skyrocket. Also, the farming and processing of these plants requires a substantial amount of energy and fuel.
Affordability: Varies depending on location and blend. B99 (99 percent biodiesel) currently costs between $3 and $3.50 per gallon.
Pain-in-the-ass factor: Medium to low.
Positives: Can be put directly into any diesel engine, and diesel can still be used if biodiesel isn't available.
Negatives: Acts as a solvent and can cause residue from old diesel engines to clog the filtration system. Also, retail pumps that dispense biodiesel are still relatively few and far between, and a vehicle's warranty can be voided if biodiesel is the cause of engine failure.
Emissions: Water soluble, non-toxic, biodegradable and carbon neutral. Greatly reduced levels of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxides, varying levels of carbon dioxide, and a bit less nitrogen oxide.
Sustainability: Ethanol primarily comes from corn. Though it can also be made from sugarcane, wheat, cheese byproducts, wood waste and other types of waste, most of the same sustainability issues related to biodiesel also apply to ethanol, especially the energy required to process it.
Affordability: Most commonly sold as E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline). Price fluctuates around the same level as 87-octane gasoline.
Positives: Supposedly, all cars can run on E10, a 10-percent ethanol blend. Many-but not all-cars currently on the road are E85 compatible.
Negatives: Though many brands of commercial gasoline already contain very low amounts of ethanol, there's currently only one commercial E85 pump in California at Pearson Fuels on El Cajon Boulevard; one gallon of pure Ethanol is about 70 percent as powerful as one gallon of gas.
Emissions: The liquid form (LNG) evaporates and the gaseous form (CNG) dissipates when released-both emit greatly reduced amounts of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides and slightly reduced levels of carbon dioxide. Non-toxic and non-corrosive.
Sustainability: A fossil fuel that's more abundant than petroleum but ultimately non-renewable.
Affordability: Once you buy a 'flex fuel' vehicle that can run on natural gas, you'll start saving money-CNG currently costs between $2.54 to $2.61 in San Diego.
Pain in the ass factor: Low.
Positives: Regular gasoline can still be used if CNG is unavailable; there are currently five CNG pumps in and around San Diego County.