TOPICS > Economy

Rising Gas Costs Increase Appeal of Biofuels

April 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: Checking out New York City’s cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center recently, and this year’s edition of the International Restaurant show…

SALESMAN: Whether it’s a wedding or bar mitzvah, a Fourth of July picnic…

PAUL SOLMAN: … hawkers were peddling the usual slicers-and-dicers.

SALESMAN: How much are they? Where can you get them? And what do I get for free?

PRODUCT SALESMAN: This prevents against date-rape.

PAUL SOLMAN: The discomforting sip secure, a low-tech way to prevent any mickey-ing with your drink…

SALESMAN: It’s also great for, like, if you’re going golfing or on a picnic to keep the bugs out.

PAUL SOLMAN: Faux-roe fabricated from fish oil.

SALESMAN: It’s been called the darling of alternative caviar.

PAUL SOLMAN: The darling of alternative caviar?

SALESMAN: Absolutely.

PAUL SOLMAN: But just a stone’s throw from Michelangelo’s ever-popular heads of David, perhaps the most important pitchman on the floor, from the planet’s point of view, biodiesel entrepreneur Brent Baker.

BRENT BAKER, Biodiesel Entrepreneur: There is literally billions of gallons of this waste product that could be used to make this environmentally-friendly fuel.

PAUL SOLMAN: Billions of gallons of what? Get this: Used cooking oil, the fat left in the vat, so to speak, after the food has been fried. Brent Baker is trying to siphon off and eventually refine into biodiesel as much of America’s three billion gallons of secondhand frying oil as he can.

BRENT BAKER: I have a company called Tri-state Biodiesel and we have a free waste-oil collection service for free for your restaurants.

PAUL SOLMAN: Amidst come-ons that didn’t quite deliver on their promise, Baker’s pitch proved a striking contrast.

CONFERENCE ATTENDEE: Wow, that’s great!

CONFERENCE ATTENDEE: Yes, you should keep the information.

CONFERENCE ATTENDEE: Because it’s actually — you know, they charge us to come and collect this stuff now, and you’re picking it up for nothing.

CONFERENCE ATTENDEE: It’s a no-brainer, of course.

CONFERENCE ATTENDEE: It sounds too good to be true.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sure, this was just one small corner of the restaurant show, much less of the planet, but Baker is part of a movement that’s modest at the moment but growing like greased lightning, because vegetable oil, what Rudolf Diesel invented his engine to run on a hundred years ago, is a cleaner, cheaper fuel that might come from a Middle Eastern falafel joint, but not the volatile Middle East itself.

Straight vegetable oil currently fuels vehicles from the touring bus of singer Willie Nelson to the propaganda machine of Brent Baker, for years a self-styled Johnny Appleseed of biofuels. But Baker and his ilk are ahead of the curve. Most folks filling up with biodiesel at the moment are using a mix of vegetable oil and regular petroleum diesel, a mix that’s still low on carbon dioxide.

BRENT BAKER: A lot of the different emissions categories are greatly reduced with biodiesel, about 70 percent overall emissions reduction, as compared to petroleum diesel.

JONATHAN PRATT, Restaurant Owner: There’s our refinery.

PAUL SOLMAN: At some places, however, they’re already going all the way. Jonathan Pratt owns three restaurants in New York City’s northern suburbs, producing about 120 gallons of waste oil a week.

JONATHAN PRATT: We used to pay someone to take it away, and they would turn it into pet food, and soaps, and detergents, and things like that, and some of it would even end up in biodiesel manufacturing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nowadays, the only side product is the odor.

JONATHAN PRATT: That ain’t diesel fuel.

PAUL SOLMAN: No, it isn’t diesel fuel. What is it?

JONATHAN PRATT: That’s canola oil that’s fried about 400 pounds of French fries and potato chips.

PAUL SOLMAN: And this is a truck that’s been fitted with a kit that heats the oil to keep it from clogging up so it can burn in a normal vehicle. Pratt’s so happy with this truck — saving $800 a month on fuel — that he’s converting another. Friends and neighbors are also converting, thanks to Pratt’s pal, Wally Little, who gives a new twist to the phrase “grease monkey.”

WALLY LITTLE, Biodiesel Converter: There’s a cartridge filter, spin-on filter, which sits inside a heated coil.

PAUL SOLMAN: The cost: less than $2,000 bucks for parts and labor, including a free fill-up, which Wally filters himself.

What does that smell like?

WALLY LITTLE: Pu-pu platter.

PAUL SOLMAN: Pu-pu platter, is that right? Is that what you think it is?

WALLY LITTLE: Most of that oil there came from a Chinese restaurant.

PAUL SOLMAN: Let’s get this clear, P-U, P-U. Well, P-U.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wally Little has converted about 60 vehicles the past year, this one for a doctor. Alex O’Connor’s trucks, which he uses in his roofing business, are on deck.

ALEX O’CONNER, Roofing Business Owner: We spend about $2,000 to $3,000 per week on gas in the summer time, so if we can find a way to mitigate those costs, we will be happy to try.

PAUL SOLMAN: And more than just out-of-pocket costs are mitigated; there’s also the removal of guilt about global warming. This year, Americans will burn nearly 200 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, contributing 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the world’s atmosphere. That’s about one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions, nearly 10 percent of the world’s total.

CO-2, of course, is the primary greenhouse gas, whose concentrations in the atmosphere, after holding steady for thousands of years, are rising at what the great majority of climate scientists now warn is an ominously accelerating rate. The problem is that atmospheric CO-2 seems to act like a blanket, trapping heat, warming up the world.

WALLACE BROECKER, Columbia University: People are going to look back in 200 or 300 years and say, “Those idiots back there, they could see that, by adding all this CO-2, they were going to make some horrendous changes on the planet. And, yet, and they also realized that they could avoid it by a reasonably small cost. Why didn’t they do it?”

PAUL SOLMAN: Columbia University scientist Wally Broecker isn’t just talking about any idiots; he might even be talking about you and me.

WALLACE BROECKER: Every time you drive a standard American or Japanese car one mile, you release from your tailpipe one pound of CO-2. So if you drive your car 20,000 miles in a year, you produce 20,000 pounds of CO-2.

PAUL SOLMAN: Twenty thousand pounds, ten tons per driver.

Now, to date, the main technology solution has been government-subsidized production of ethanol, made mainly in this country from corn and soy, plentiful but not especially energy-rich, by, as it happens, a company that funds this program, Archer Daniels Midland.

Ethanol’s environmental selling point is that it’s carbon-neutral. The modest amount of CO-2 it gives off when burned is reabsorbed by the crops used to make more of it. Critics like the Wall Street Journal editorial page argue that, without government subsidies, biofuels would cost too much; that they use too much land and water for irrigation; use more energy from fossil fuels to grow and harvest the corn or soy than it takes to extract oil from the ground; that they have emissions of their own.

PAUL SOLMAN: So how much of our energy needs will they ever supply? Bio-boosters counter that the industry’s in its infancy and is becoming more and more efficient; that biofuel technology is clearly cleaner; that much of our transportation needs could ultimately be provided by harvesting just the millions of acres the government’s already paying farmers to set aside and not farm on.

Moreover, soy and corn aren’t the only forms of ethanol. Indeed, back at the restaurant show, hawking a new foodstuff, fresh hearts of palm, was an American expat based in Brazil where sugarcane is the ethanol source, and nearly 80 percent of all new cars in Brazil run on sugar-based ethanol.

HYBRID CAR USER: My car is a hybrid car. And I get really put all gasoline, which has 25 percent ethanol, or 100 percent alcohol.

PAUL SOLMAN: With a land mass roughly the size of the U.S., plenty of sun, rain and cheap labor, Brazil hopes to grow enough sugarcane to become energy independent.

COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: What if we could lower greenhouse gas emissions…

COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: … with a fuel that grew back every year?

PAUL SOLMAN: This is actually a business in which U.S. automakers have a jump on the Japanese, since Toyota and Honda make electric hybrids, but not yet flexible biofuel vehicles.

COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: Over 1.5 million cars and trucks that could run on this fuel.

PAUL SOLMAN: Flex-fuel cars, that’s what embattled GM is pushing these days, as is the fabulously rich co-founder of Silicon Valley’s Sun Microsystems, Vinod Khosla, now a venture capitalist, who’s been investing seed money in, well, seeds and the technology to grow and harvest them for biofuels.

VINOD KHOSLA, Cofounder, Sun Microsystems: I’m talking about something that will replace 50 percent, 70 percent, or 100 percent of our petroleum. And we can permanently change our infrastructure and our direction in the next five years.

PAUL SOLMAN: Five years?

VINOD KHOSLA: Next five years. If Brazil can do this, why can’t we?

PAUL SOLMAN: The technology this Sun king is putting his money on: ethanol from cellulose-rich crops, like switchgrass. And where have you heard of that form of flora before?

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips, and stalks, or switchgrass.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, even President Bush, in his State of the Union Address, was pushing biofuels, if somewhat less messianically than Khosla.

VINOD KHOSLA: I’ll give you your choice of reasons why you should support biofuels: if you care about geopolitics; if you care about Mideast terrorists; if you care about cheaper fuel for consumers.

PAUL SOLMAN: If you care about America’s farmers; if you care about the environment.

VINOD KHOSLA: Now, even if the climate wasn’t melting down, it’s still a good idea. It’s still a good idea to have our future, our energy future, in our hands and not in the hands of Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or Russia.

PAUL SOLMAN: There is, however, at least one other major fly in this ointment, besides those already mentioned, one that mechanic Wally Little discovered when petroleum prices briefly tanked.

WALLY LITTLE: As the prices came down, so did the volume of people that wanted to do the conversion.

PAUL SOLMAN: Without high oil prices, biofuels would be, to put it bluntly, a non-starter, unless heavily subsidized, down at Wally’s, everywhere in the world.

VINOD KHOSLA: I was recently at a conference where one of the senior executives of a major national oil company from Saudi Arabia, Aramco, came up to me and said, “Be careful.” It was almost a warning. He said, “Be careful, because if biofuels are successful, we will drop the price of oil.”

PAUL SOLMAN: As a result, Khosla’s got a scheme to stabilize the price of oil through a hike in the gas tax if prices go down. He insists that predictable oil prices are crucial to the alternative fuel industry to give more faith that their investments will pay off.

BRENT BAKER: This will hopefully be the Tri-state Biodiesel headquarters.

PAUL SOLMAN: Investors, for example, like those backing Brent Baker, who intends to turn this abandoned industrial oil recycling terminal on the Brooklyn waterfront into a state-of-the-art facility, producing five million gallons of biodiesel a year.

BRENT BAKER: We’ve got all of this piping here. We think we can use a lot of this.

PAUL SOLMAN: Granted, when it comes to America’s fuel needs, which are 200 billion gallons a year, 5 million gallons is a drop in the barrel, a molecule in the barrel once all of those Chinese and Indians you’ve heard about accelerate their buying of cars and trucks.

On the other hand, with an estimated 3 billion gallons a year of restaurant oil, another 6 billion gallons in grease from America’s sinks, waste oil alone could conceivably supplant as much as 15 percent of all our diesel, speed up efficient ethanol development as well, and we might go a long way toward replacing the dirty fossils on which we still so slavishly depend.