My friend Ted is something of an evangelist for the benefits of biodiesel: usually vegetable-based oil — for instance, filtered fryer oil from the In-n-Out — that will burn in modified diesel engines either by itself or in combination with regular diesel. The arguments for biodiesel, to boil them down: It burns (mostly) cleaner than regular diesel. It’s cheaper than petroleum-based fuel. And it comes from recycling used vegetable oil or from natural sources. Berkeley’s one of the cities that has put part of its municipal truck fleet on biodiesel; it’s a little odd when one of the recycling trucks in town passes by and you get a whiff of something like overheated Mazola oil. So biodiesel is real. It’s practical where people have gotten into it to the point where they’ve set up fuel processing and filling stations; which is to say it’s not yet very practical.
But The New York Times on Friday features a story that shows how that’s changing: “His Car Smelling Like French Fries, Willie Nelson Sells Biodiesel.” The story talks about how Nelson is opening biodiesel fuel stations in several states, about his political reasons for undertaking the effort, and about how much he loves biodiesel:
“My wife came to me and said ‘I want to buy this car that runs on biodiesel, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And so she told me, and I thought it was a scam or joke or something. So I said, ‘Go ahead, it’s your money.’ ”
She bought a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine and started filling it with fuel made from restaurant grease. This is not uncommon. Home hobbyists make their own biodiesel by collecting used grease from restaurants and chemically treating it to turn it into usable fuel, or by outfitting their car or truck with equipment to re-form the grease.
“I drove the car, loved the way it drove,” Mr. Nelson said. “The tailpipe smells like French fries. I bought me a Mercedes, and the Mercedes people were a little nervous when I took a brand new Mercedes over and filled it up with 100 percent vegetable oil coming from the grease traps of Maui. I figured I’d be getting notices about the warranty and that stuff. However, nobody said anything.”
“I get better gas mileage, it runs better, the motor runs cleaner, so I swear by it,” he added.
The story touches on one downside of biodiesel, too: It could prove expensive and energy-intensive to produce.