April 7, 2005
On the cover: Andy Cooper
of Footprint Recycling in Arcata. Photo by Bob Doran.
by HANK SIMS
AS FAR AS ANYONE CAN REMEMBER, IAN SIGMAN was the first person in Humboldt County to make his own automobile fuel.
Sigman, who grows and markets Mama's Great-Grandma's Italian Peppers at his Honeydew farm, first heard about biodiesel -- a version of diesel fuel manufactured entirely out of organic material -- sometime in the mid-'90s. There wasn't a lot of information available, but by 1998 he had, through luck and persistence, cobbled together enough information to try to make some of his own.
[Right: Ian Sigman with daughter Zoe]
When his first batch was ready, Sigman drove his truck down to the Petrolia Post office to let everyone take a whiff of his exhaust, which smelled like fresh donuts.
"I remember wanting to get it out there before everyone caught on, because it was so cool," he reminisced. "My ego really wanted to be the first guy, but it wasn't that remarkable -- I was just following instructions."
He was hooked. Soon, everything down to his tractor was running on the stuff.
Sigman may have been the first, but many have since followed. Biodiesel is getting more popular, and it's not hard to see why. It speaks to several primal, echt-Humboldt values. For one, it can be the product of an ingenious kind of recycling. Take -- as Sigman did -- used deep-fryer oil, possibly the most disgusting waste product commonly generated by human beings. Through simple chemistry, transform it into a potent fuel capable of powering a car, forklift, generator -- whatever. Anything that runs on normal diesel will run on biodiesel, and biodiesel burns much cleaner than the kind extracted from petroleum, with fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less gunky buildup in the engine, according the National Biodiesel Board, an industry advocate group. All this on top of the fact that diesel engines generally get better mileage than gasoline-powered ones.
At the same time, it holds out the promise of energy independence. Most of the other staples of everyday life, from food to wood to electricity, can be made locally, but despair awaits off-the-gridders every time they make the inevitable stop at the gas station. In the constellation of corporate evildoers, big oil holds a special dark place in many a heart; this may partly be due to the fact that in a rural area, one can not simply decline to buy its products. Until recently. Nowadays, anyone with commitment and spare time can brew his own fuel in the garage.
Today's biodieselers may not be the first guys on the block, but there's still a frontier spirit to the enterprise that many find appealing. They seek out restaurants that will agree to give them free grease, fine tune their equipment and chat with fellow diesel-makers.
But as the scene has grown, some of the fun may be starting to fade away. The government has taken an interest. Also, there is now some question about whether local restaurants can supply enough crude material to supply the growing hunger for the product. To say nothing of the fact that making dirty kitchen grease a part of your life requires an unusually stout constitution.
Sigman still runs biodiesel in his car, delivery van and farm equipment, but he stopped making his own a few years ago. Nowadays, a Renner Petroleum truck pulls up to his place once a year and fills a big tank on his property with B100 -- industry terminology for pure, or "neat," biodiesel -- manufactured from virgin vegetable oils.
"It was a relatively simple process, but it was not necessarily easy," he said of the old days, when he'd schlep drums of used oil back to the farm once a month. "Greasy, not easy. Once Renner started selling it -- I felt that was a product I should support."
But Sigman remains proud of the fact that the county's first biodiesel was produced just down the road from Petrolia -- site of California's first oil well.
Fill 'er up
Last Friday, Eureka resident Cassandra Culps [at right] pulled her van up to the pump at Footprint Recycling to get a fill-up. Footprint biodiesel goes for about $3.50 a gallon -- about a dollar more than regular diesel -- but she didn't mind paying the surcharge in exchange for the feeling of environmental responsibility.
"You pay more, but it's worth it," she said.
Such sentiments are music to the ears of Andy Cooper [photo below left] , Footprint's young, motivated owner. From its humble beginnings as Cooper's Humboldt State master's thesis four years ago, since opening its doors in early 2004 Footprint has grown into a decent- sized industrial operation, with a fleet of grease pickup vehicles and an equipment-filled warehouse on Arcata's West End Road. The company produces about 2,500 gallons of biodiesel a month, and Cooper wants to see that figure triple over the coming years.
In addition to showing every sign of being a savvy businessman, Cooper is an effective evangelist for his product and for the recycling ethos in general. On a tour of the facilities, he pointed out how Footprint had grown by adapting old pieces of machinery. Instead of buying an expensive walk-in refrigerator, he purchased an old refrigerated trailer and parked it in the yard, saving money and removing a big piece of junk from the waste stream.
"Seventy-five percent of the equipment that's used here at Footprint is salvaged out of the Eureka or Arcata recycling center, or out of local farms," he said.
Cooper wants to expand Footprint's biodiesel business to span the lengths of the county. He's already got contracts with dozens of local restaurants, charging them a nominal price for pickup of their used oil, which would otherwise be difficult to dispose of. He's in discussions with the North Coast Cooperative about installing a pump at its new store in Eureka, which is scheduled to be finished sometime next year.
State wants standards
What Cooper didn't know last week was that pure biodiesel fill-ups, like Culps had just bought from Footprint, are now technically illegal, thanks to new regulations from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
David Lazier, the petroleum products manager for the state DFA's Department of Weights and Measures, said that his department actually enacted the ban last fall. He said that large biodiesel manufacturers had asked the state to impose standards on the fuel in 2003, as part of a quality-control effort.
As no industrial standards had been developed by national or international bodies, the department had to put the ban into effect so that it could have more time to research the issue, Lazier said. To help gather data, the department built an exemption into the ban -- biodiesel manufacturers could receive a variance, allowing them to sell the fuel to customers, if they would agree to share data about their fuel and their customers' experiences with the state.
"Technically, it's a misdemeanor which could be as much as a thousand dollar fine and six months in jail," Lazier said. "But our response would be to talk with them and tell the procedure for applying for a variance." Fourteen companies have already done so statewide, Lazier said, and no one has yet been turned down.
Renner Petroleum Operations Manager Rex Bohn said his company received a letter from the state outlining the regulations in January. Since then, Renner has only been able to sell B20 -- an 80 percent diesel, 20 percent biodiesel blend -- at its cardlock stations.
Bohn said that it was a shame that the company could no longer offer the pure product, which he felt was a great alternative to traditional diesel or gasoline. "It's a win-win fuel, because it helps the American farmer and it's good for the environment," he said.
He noted that Renner customers could still buy pure biodiesel for non-vehicular use in 5- or 55-gallon containers at the company's Eureka headquarters. It's not clear if the ban affects home delivery of biodiesel, like those made to Sigman's farm.
Cooper said that he was not aware of the new regulations, but that he would be contacting Sacramento to figure out what they were and how he would comply.
"Footprint is here to stay, and I want people to know about it," he said. "I'm not trying to get around anything. If we need the variance, we will get the variance."
The regulations don't apply to the scattered few who, like Sigman in his early days, make their own biodiesel in their garages or back yards. Lazier's department only regulates the fuel from the standpoint of consumer protection, not environmental protection. Except for a slightly higher output of nitrogen oxide emissions, everyone agrees that biodiesel is much cleaner than regular fuel, so hobbyists are still free to put their own diesel into their own tanks.
Nico Kastrup [photo at left] of Fieldbrook first heard about biodiesel when he was at mechanic's school in Southern California, but he didn't think much about it until he moved up from Venice three years ago. He was only 21 years old and already a trained mechanic with a specialty in diesel engines, but he was looking for a way to get out of the profession, as he was finding himself more and more politically disturbed by the nation's dependence on crude oil.
But Kastrup couldn't find a job that would pay anything close to what he could earn as a mechanic, so, recalling his teacher's cursory introduction to the topic, he set out to learn how to make biodiesel. It didn't take him long to plug into the county's burgeoning network of home-brewers.
"Here, people who don't know anything about cars, or even own a diesel, know about biodiesel," he said.
Kastrup runs a homemade, three-barrel setup for manufacturing his biodiesel. He filters the oil through a screen into the first barrel, removing burnt pieces of crud left over from the fryer. In the second, he mixes the pure oil with methanol and lye -- simple chemical ingredients necessary for the biodiesel reaction. He stirs this mixture with a modified outboard motor, letting glycerin -- a by-product -- settle to the bottom. He then skims the pure biodiesel off the top, pumping it into the third drum for eventual use in his Volkswagen pickup.
If there's a hitch to the system, it's that Kastrup doesn't get as much oil as he would like. He has a steady relationship with five or six local restaurants, but he's having a hard time signing up additional sources. Once upon a time, there was a surfeit of used grease on the market -- with more and more biodieselers on the scene, it is turning into a scarce commodity.
Cooper figures that only about a third of the local kitchen oil is making its way into the biodiesel stream; the rest is being absorbed by an out-of-county renderer who had controlled the market for years before biodiesel came on to the scene. He's banking the future growth of Footprint on his ability to capture that company's business.
[Right: Nico Kastrup uses a modified outboard motor to mix up batches in the biodiesel manufacturing process]
No threat to Chevron
But even that would mean little if the goal is to wean the county off fossil fuels. A few weeks ago, the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, a publication of the Seattle-based group Northwest Environment Watch, ran the numbers on Footprint's operations and came up with a disappointing conclusion. Though Footprint was lauded for removing fryer oil from the waste stream, biodiesel made from the product was unlikely to solve any deep, systemic problems with energy use.
"Humboldt County has about 130,000 residents, and if they consume gasoline at the state average, they use a total of roughly 4.4 million gallons of gasoline per month," the blog's editor noted. "That means that, even if Footprint Recycling could get its hands on all of the used fryer grease in the county, the company would still supply less than 0.2% of the county's transportation fuel needs."
Some of that shortfall could theoretically be made up with biodiesel made from fresh oil, like the product Renner sells. For many, though, fuel made from fresh oil doesn't have as many benefits as recycled oil. People like Cooper and Kastrup say that part of the appeal is creating a fantastic product virtually out of nothing -- converting fields used for the production of food over to growing a fuel source doesn't necessarily feel like a step forward.
But though these are all concerns, they are not likely to deter true enthusiasts. These days, Kastrup is taking it to the next level by converting his truck to run on pure vegetable oil. [photo above left] The process is a bit more difficult, mechanically -- it requires modifications to the vehicle -- but it has the advantage of requiring no fossil fuel at all, as no methanol is needed to make it. Also, it's cheaper.
"I enjoy making biodiesel," he said. "It's fun. But I don't want to use it as my only source of energy. If it costs me $1 per gallon to make biodiesel and 5 cents per gallon to filter vegetable oil, why am I doing it?"
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