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Off the Grid
Go, Greased Lightnin’
A back-to-the-earther shrinks his carbon footprint by turning to a truck that runs on food waste. Now, if he can shake his craving for French fries and Chinese takeout.

 

From Farewell, My Subaru, by Doug Fine, © 2008 by Doug Fine. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. 

CAUTION: The Work appearing herin is protected under copyright laws. Any reproduction of the text in any form for distribution is prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work through any medium must be obtained from the copyright owner.

 

As I watched my Subaru Legacy slide backward, the thought crossed my mind that if it kept going—and I didn’t see why it wouldn’t—at least I would be using less gasoline. A few days after I moved into the sprawling, crumbling 41-acre New Mexico spread that I had named the Funky Butte Ranch (it had a funky limestone butte on its east side where two great horned owls with an active love life nested), I neglected to firmly apply that last click to the parking brake on my aged fossil fuel–powered hatchback, the LOVEsubee.

This was a good thing. Really. The imminent demise of my ride, I rationalized, would help me with one of my four big goals for the next year, which were:

1. Use a lot less oil.

2. Power my life by renewable energy.

3. Eat as locally as possible.

4. Don’t starve, electrocute myself, get eaten by the local mountain lions, get shot by my U.N.-fearing neighbors, or otherwise die in a way that would cause embarrassment if the obituary writer did his or her research.

The time was absolutely right for me to personally embark on this adventure in living green—other than having no electrical, plumbing, building, engine mechanical, horticultural, or animal husbandry skills at all, that is. After growing up on Domino’s Pizza in the New York suburbs, at age 36 I wanted to see if a regular guy who enjoyed his comforts could maintain them with a reduced-oil footprint. In concrete terms this meant raising animals and crops for my food, figuring out some way besides unleaded to get anywhere, and making bank account–draining investments in solar power.

Coincidentally, society seemed to be ready, too, or at least to have transformed from considering such an experiment radically subversive to simply radically unfeasible. Citigroup, the world’s largest company, announced in 2007 that it was investing $50 billion in green projects. Companies were marketing everything from “sustainable” mascara to green SUVs.

I didn’t know if the current green rage was just another trend—a fad until oil prices came down a little. But what if $2.29 gas prices weren’t coming back? What started out as a cute whim for me quickly became a much more personal journey.

Whether or not the LOVEsubee crashed into the barn on its current backward slide, I decided it was time to do something about the roughly 12,430 gallons of unleaded I’d churned through in my 20 years as a driver. I’d recently gotten a call back from a mechanic I’d Googled up in Albuquerque. He proceeded to assure me that with a simple engine modification he could have me driving on the waste fryer grease from the local burrito shop. That sounded like too good an opportunity to pass up. But there was a catch: My fuel would be both free and carbon neutral if—and this was a big if—I was willing to part with LOVEsubee and get myself a diesel engine.

I carefully checked out Kevin Forrest’s website (his operation had a timely name: Albuquerque Alternative Energies), and when it looked legit, I realized I half wished it hadn’t. I had a bit of separation anxiety when I thought about ditching a vehicle that had been reliably propelling me around North America for 12 years and 204,000 miles. But thanks to [the] two healthy goats I had gotten off Craigslist and hauled to my remote Funky Butte Ranch, I was on my way toward oil independence when it came to my dairy protein, so if I was serious about kicking unleaded once and for all, I had to take the next step. This meant crossing a few mountain ranges, and driving 240 miles north to New Mexico’s big city in what I hoped would be the final fossil-fueled road trip of my life.

 

I slipped and went down hard two steps into the Albuquerque Alternative Energies warehouse. My host, who pretty much lived in restaurant grease, didn’t even notice. So I got a second chance to learn that “stepping” is not the right way to think about moving across a concrete floor covered in vegetable oil. “Gliding” is more the technique. The floor was a nearly frictionless surface reminiscent of a glacier. Ice crampons would have helped. Regardless, my early tumble that March afternoon was a clue as to the important role that grease was going to play in my life from now on. Weaning myself from fossil fuels would be a slippery process.

“It’s a pretty simple conversion,” my tour guide, Kevin, explained as he led me inside the warehouse without so much as a “watch out—the floor’s a little slick.” (I had already figured that out and was dusting myself off in mild agony.) “It’s just a matter of repositioning the fuel filter behind the lift pump, adding the heated VO filter, and bolting in a second fuel tank with a HotFox unit in it to heat the fuel.”

My eyes glazed over the way they do whenever an expert in any field speaks in jargon. Kevin, who bore the unmistakable aura of the mad scientist, had already convinced me he was going to make gas station fill-ups a part of my past. At the moment he was trying to describe how the system worked.

Kevin skated around the warehouse floor in coveralls that gave him something of an Oompa-loompa appearance (they were hiked up to wedgie levels), holding up engine parts for my edification. I tried to simultaneously train my attention on the mechanic and keep my balance on the warehouse rink. The 27-year-old didn’t sit still for a second—it was like watching Gilligan’s Island when they sped up the film to show that someone was really scared.

Maybe it’s a sign that biofuels were coming of age, but Kevin was so busy I couldn’t figure out when he slept. Pounding Royal Crown Cola from a three-liter bottle, he dashed between Kirkland Air Force Base, where he was an active duty Air Force Specialist, occasional visits to his wife and infant son at their Albuquerque home, and the downtown space that Albuquerque Alternative Energies leased from, ironically enough, the neighboring Chevron dealer.

For a pioneer in alternative energy, though, Kevin Forrest was no tree-hugger. The two-tour Iraq vet sported a buzz cut. So why was a fellow who leaned a little to the right of Bill O’Reilly helping his country reduce its dependence on foreign oil?

“I’m a patriot,” was how the vegetable oil mechanic put it in the warehouse, gesturing toward the Persian Gulf. “One day when I was landing over there, it occurred to me that the people firing at me are financed by the oil that we buy and put into our vehicles. It’s a ridiculous loop. I just thought we should see if we could put something else in.”

We can. It’s not even that big a deal. Rudolf Diesel, the fellow who invented the engine that bears his name, actually intended for farmers to grow their own fuel. This is not processed biodiesel. This is straight veggie oil. These days it usually comes from waste oil from restaurants. No chemistry necessary. Just some filtering of French fry and sparerib bits. Stuff that would otherwise get sent off to commercial cattle and hog feedlots. Hence the fact that the Albuquerque Alternative Energies warehouse smelled like something between the local McDonald’s and some Chinese takeout past its prime.

In fact, inhaling the warehouse scent while listening to Kevin talk about his vegetable oil system (a “VegOil rig,” to us green geeks), it occurred to me that a plate of really delicious Chinese takeout left out overnight was probably the best way for me to visualize how the whole magical conversion of my vehicle would work. Imagine: I come into the kitchen in the morning, three-quarters asleep, to the sight of my coagulated Kung Pao chicken leftovers. The sight always makes me want to retch. “How did I ever eat something so full of chunky white fat globules?” I wonder. “And where were those fat globules last night?”

The answer is, when my Kung Pao chicken was piping hot, they were tiny liquefied molecules about the size of BB pellets, pellets that flowed right into me invisibly. These small liquid fuel pellets were what I wanted going through my engine, Kevin said, though he put it in terms that only a senior NASA engineer would understand. What I definitely didn’t want were those solid fat globules that form on my leftovers when things cool down. Kevin had developed a system of heating and fuel distribution that would ensure I was always getting hot, liquid Chinese food oil in the engine. Never goopy leftovers. And I mean this literally: My vehicle would run on the exact same grease used to cook the Kung Pao chicken I so love. And anything else that comes from the Heart Attack Accelerators known as deep fryers.

To make this experiment work, though, I’d have to get a diesel engine. Even under Kevin’s veggie oil system, my vehicle would actually run on bad ol’ traditional diesel fuel when I started the engine. But only for a few minutes. Once the engine heated up, the system would switch to a special fuel tank full of fryer oil. If this grease wasn’t hot enough, though, it would clog my fuel lines like a Green Bay Packer fan’s arteries. But once the system reached the magic temperature of 140 degrees, I was carbon neutral: I could drive around the world without guilt if I wanted to.

Buoyed by that encouraging prospect, I had started the day shopping for a LOVEsubee replacement. I knew I not only had to go diesel but that I also needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle, because the last dirt mile leading to the Funky Butte Ranch was maintained with the frequency of the highway system in Somalia. So unless I planned on importing a smaller diesel truck from one of the wrong-side-steering-wheel countries, my truck would be American-made and would come in one of two sizes: XXXL or XXXXL. I leaned toward XXXL. It’s hard to convey what a leap this was for a guy used to driving a Japanese compact car whose only maintenance, for 12 years, was the occasional radio station change. But when it came to carbon output, I had an almost Swisslike dedication to neutrality. So I braved what I knew would be a difficult morning.

Just four miles from the Albuquerque Alternative Energies workshop, the Used Truck Sales Department at (“It’s a Great Day at”) Rich Ford in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2007 is a quaint throwback to every cliché about used car sales, right down to the good cop/bad cop sales approach. They in fact had a diesel truck on the lot, in forest green, appropriately enough. At one point in the negotiations I heard (or was intended to hear) the manager, from behind the half-open “private” door, yelling at my salesman that he would never budge on the price for such a “cherry” six-year-old vehicle as the one I was considering.

Frankly, I’m impressed that I left that day unsure if I was snow-jobbed or not. I was the one with the English literature degree. They were the ones with my money. Quite a bit over Blue Book. The whole thing felt suspiciously like dealing with used car salesmen.

But I surprised myself by immediately taking to the Monster Truck I had purchased, the way a recruit handed a bazooka might become entranced by blowing up entire houses during target practice. I had with one large check transformed myself from the lowest vehicle on the road to the highest. I’d never owned a car with an entrance ladder before.

On my test drive I noticed tiny Hummers and Suburbans bowing deferentially out of my lane, their drivers smiling submissively and waving me on. I started reading clearance signs because of close calls at my initial overpasses, and when I pulled over I figured out quickly that whatever else it meant to be a full-size-truck owner, I was now a parking lot refugee. I’ve since had scientist friends do the calculations, and it is physically impossible, in the earth’s atmosphere, to steer a 2001 Ford F-250 into a standard parking space on the first try. I suddenly felt deep empathy with every excluded minority. Before the morning was out, I discovered that all of us Monster Truck drivers congregate grumpily on the outskirts of supermarket and hardware store parking lots, taking up one and a third spots and suiting up for the long trek inside. Usually we leave our engines running, since starting a diesel V-8 engine (on any fuel) is such an event that three or more simultaneous starts can affect oil prices worldwide. Sometimes we hold barbecues out there.

In short, it was an impressive piece of machinery. Before I had even declined the alarm system and undercarriage waxing from the Rich Ford dealership, I had named my new ride the ROAT: the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck. I mean, this was a V-8, which was twice as many V’s as I was used to. Suddenly I could accelerate up hills. Even when carrying four bales of alfalfa hay, eight solar panels, and a peripatetic puppy. I almost felt obligated to put a pinch of chewing tobacco between my cheek and gum, just when the rest of the world was abandoning its SUVs exactly like a bad habit.

And I realized at the first traffic light during the elevated drive to the Albuquerque Alternative Energies warehouse that the type of masculinity I project had now and forever changed. I went to sleep as a sensitive progressive and woke up in the NASCAR demographic. Women with names like Darla were eyeing my rig like it was a human body part. They winked. Introduced themselves with tattooed waves. Once or twice tongues emerged. I tried to put this in Darwinian perspective: Was there something about excessive heaps of steel and insanely powerful engines that implied good breeding prospects? The LOVEsubee, compared to this vehicle, had roughly the power and environmental footprint of a go-cart. I couldn’t believe they allowed such toys on the road.

Back at Albuquerque Alternative Energies headquarters, the vegetable oil conversion took three days, most of which I spent misunderstanding jargon. “You can double your post-purge run time if you’re getting hard starts,” Kevin said late on day one, and I lost focus immediately. I didn’t realize what an important point he was making. He meant that I had to clear my fuel lines of vegetable oil whenever I stopped for more than 20 minutes or they’d look like John Candy’s aorta. The next time I tried to start the ROAT, coronary arrest would be the prognosis. I was so lucky to have such a feature in my truck. If only we could purge the fat globules from our arteries after each Chinese meal.

I wasn’t concerned about fading out during Kevin’s technical talk, though. My truck was among the first equipped with a nifty digital control panel Velcroed to the dash.  It was called the VO Controller and was invented by a guy named Ray in his Michigan garage. Thanks to this device, Kevin said, my engine would know when it hit 140 degrees, and would switch to vegetable oil power on its own. It would even “purge” the fuel lines automatically when I shut off the engine. I didn’t have to think about these nuances. When I left the warehouse, I was a carbon-neutral giant on the highway. I could just drive and feel like a green global citizen. And I think that’s the best way to be a patriotic American, too.

 

Doug Fine is a contributor for National Public Radio. This essay is from Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living (Villard Books). Read more about his carbon-neutral misadventures at the Funky Butte Ranch on his blog.
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