Is biodiesel the fuel of the future?
The Granola Ayatollah of Canola, aka Charris Ford, slides behind the wheel of his 1980 International Scout truck and turns the key. The truck burbles to life and off we go, cruising down the gravel roads that divide the aspen groves of southwestern Colorado’s Horsefly Mesa. It would be just a standard evening joyride, except that Ford’s truck doesn’t run on gasoline. Or diesel. Or electricity, or even the sun. This truck is powered by grease, all of it drained from restaurant deep-fryers in the nearby resort town of Telluride.
Photo: Eric Limon.
The truck’s top is off for the summer and the boxy, orange-and-black vehicle is in mint condition. Clean, vintage floor mats declare “Let’s Boogie!” A small disco ball hangs from the rear-view mirror, and a five-inch Heinz A-1 cardboard air freshener, shaped like a ketchup bottle, dangles from the driver’s sun visor.
“If you’ve got the french fry car, you’ve got to have the ketchup air freshener,” Ford declares.
Does it actually smell like ketchup?
“Actually,” he says a little sheepishly, “it smells like coconut.”
The child of two Woodstock hippies, Ford, who is now 32, spent 10 years living a back-to-the-land existence on a remote Tennessee farm. He learned to farm from his Amish neighbors, logged trees with the help of two Belgian draft horses, and rode a bicycle that bore a sticker declaring “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive.” Now, propelled by a commitment to “serve society,” Ford is on a mission to save us from our petroleum addiction.
“If we made it through the ice age, we can make it through our energy crisis,” he says.
Photo: National Parks
Ford’s truck runs on biodiesel, a fuel that can be made out of virgin oils from plants such as soybeans, corn, canola, coconuts, or peanuts, or by filtering and processing used vegetable oils, principally restaurant grease. Biodiesel is not new; indeed, when Rudolph Diesel first described plans for his engine in 1893, he thought he had designed something that farmers could fuel themselves using peanut oil. (Cheap petroleum hijacked his dream of rural self-sufficiency.)
But if biodiesel isn’t new, it is newly popular: Production in the United States is growing fast, from about 15 million gallons last year to an expected 20-25 million gallons this year to as many as 40 million gallons next year. Still, biodiesel comprises just a tiny fraction of the 55 billion gallons of diesel fuel consumed annually in the United States, when it could account for a lot more: The U.S. Energy Department concluded last year that current soybean production and waste grease could produce about 6 billion gallons of biodiesel annually. Major oil companies such as BP and Gulf Oil are getting into the biodiesel business, and the fuel is already used in vehicle fleets across the country, including that of the U.S. Postal Service. (Retail biodiesel is hard to come by; only about 30 drive-up pumps exist nationwide.)
There are good reasons to welcome biodiesel’s increasing popularity. In addition to being a renewable energy source, biodiesel is substantially cleaner than regular diesel. When the Berkeley, Calif., Ecology Center converted its recycling trucks from conventional diesel to biodiesel, particulate emissions dropped by 84 percent. According to Ecology Center Director Dave Williamson, biodiesel emits 78 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional diesel over its full life cycle, as well as 43 percent less carbon monoxide. He calculates that the daily waste grease of a single fast-food restaurant could fuel one of his trucks for its daily recycling collection rounds.
The fuel does have its drawbacks, however — principally expense. Currently, biodiesel costs about $2 per gallon, or almost twice the pump price of conventional diesel. In addition, biodiesel coagulates at cold temperatures, so vehicles must be retrofitted with a fuel-heating system. And although biodiesel vehicles are cleaner than regular diesel in many respects, they still emit about the same amount of nitrogen oxide, one of the main components of smog.
7-Eleven From Heaven
These problems aside, Ford thinks the biodiesel moment has come. “If we keep burning petroleum and just keep taking what The Man’s got for us, we’re not going to be making any big moves,” says Ford, who is six feet tall and wiry. A fuzz of close-cropped brown hair covers his head and wraps around his face beneath intense blue eyes. “Biodiesel is a powerful message that we can send to oil companies and car companies and our fellow citizens. Alternative fuel is the wave of the future — if we’re going to have a future.”
Ford is charming, confident, and charismatic — so much so that his friend Howard Donner made a short film called French Fries to Go about Ford and his biodiesel passion. The 15-minute work premiered to popular acclaim at Telluride’s Mountainfilm Festival in May, and since then the self-described Granola Ayatollah of Canola has been asked to introduce it at other festivals. Ford, who left Tennessee in 1998 and now works with his wife, Dulcie, as a caretaker on a 1,000-acre ranch outside Telluride, is only too happy to tell his story.
When a co-worker crashed Ford’s previous, gas-powered truck in 1999, Ford decided to kick the petroleum habit. He found the Scout on the Internet, paid $8,000 for it, and drove it from Pennsylvania to Colorado. He switched out a few hoses — biodiesel will corrode natural rubber — and has been running it on recycled french fry grease ever since. With two partners, dentist Ken Hodges and builder Glen Harcourt, Ford collects used vegetable oil and refines it in Harcourt’s barn in a simple process that removes the natural glycerin and leaves a petroleum-like fuel. Their $6,000 plant can produce up to 25 gallons of fuel a day, enough for all three men to run their biodiesel vehicles.
“My real commitment is to educate and inspire the nation’s interest in biodiesel,” Ford says with characteristic intensity, “and if I can do that, that’s the job I’m interested in. My feeling is the people who are going to get rich off this are already rich.”
Ford’s larger goal is not simply to get us to buy renewable go-juice; he wants to reinvent the corner gas station. “I’m calling it the 7-Eleven from Heaven,” he says of his vision for a 21st-century alternative to the modern, soul-destroying convenience store. “It would be the Hard Rock Cafe of alternative fueling stations,” selling not only “Grassolean” — his catch-all term for biofuels — but health food, micro-brewed beers, and information on alternative medicine and energy-saving technologies.
It’s hard for most of us to get excited about reinventing the gas station, but Ford is, deeply so. “I say, screw Exxon’s green fueling station, where all they do is install a biodiesel pump,” he says. “Let’s have this be a grassroots thing. I want to create an icon. I want to give people a vision of what an incredible alternative energy station could be.” He plans to have a promotional website (www.grassolean.com) up and running by the end of the summer. (In the meantime, more information on biodiesel is available online from the National Biodiesel Board, a Missouri consortium of soybean growers, and the Hawaii-based Pacific Biodiesel, which makes fuel from recycled vegetable oil.)
Ford’s methods of getting the word out about biodiesel are refreshingly unconventional. “The first time I met Charris he had on this huge black wig and big sunglasses,” says Ken Hodges, “and I thought, ‘Oh no.’ He got into rapping right away, and I knew this was something different.”
By rapping, Hodges means rapping. When Run DMC released their first rap album, Ford was in high school in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he was taken with the way his African-American classmates would free-rap in the halls. A few years later, working alone in the fields of his Tennessee farm, he found the rap sound still stuck in his head, and he began making up verses about the world around him.
His first rap was about eating bugs; he tried it out on the Amish farm family down the road. “They liked it,” he says. “They tend to frown on music, but this didn’t have any instruments.”
Today, Ford raps on request and to audiences at his speeches on biodiesel, accompanying himself by knee-pounding and various ad hoc instrumental-esque vocalizations:
We could get driven to extinction just for spinnin’
Up an offing ourselves with our
And like them dinosaurs that died out, that
And while they profit from pollution, we’ve been
Multi-national corporations lobby for
And they can grease the palms of politicians at light speed
But think fast — that’s just Big Brother and big business
blowin’ smoke up your ass
Brainwashin’ us to believe the drama, bloodshed,
That we keep on creatin’ in the Middle East is
Oh yeah has nothin’ to do with our out-and-out addiction
to the flammable goo
Oil, that is
Well nice try, I hear it chirpin’ but it just don’t fly
People who’ve been around biodiesel vehicles frequently comment on their smell, often likened to french fries or popcorn, and I’d wanted to get a whiff ever since I introduced myself to Ford. Now, with evening settling in, he pulls the Scout over near a small guest house beside a spring, a place he sometimes stays when his ranch’s California owner comes to visit. It is a beautiful spot.
I get out of Ford’s truck, head to the tailpipe, and breathe deeply. It hardly smells like anything at all. It is, simply, clean.
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