Cooking up alternative fuel

Move over, light sweet crude. Recycled vegetable oil won't be denied as a diesel fuel alternative any longer.

As gas hovers at $3.69 per gallon, some motorists in the Charlotte region and across the nation have turned to recycled vegetable oil to fuel cars and trucks.

Andy Bunn, an east Mecklenburg County resident who runs Metro-Paws dog training in Charlotte, has cruised around nearly the whole summer in a 1985 Mercedes-Benz sedan that runs only on recycled cooking oil. Now that he's set up to purify the stuff, Bunn said it costs him only time and labor. He uses about 40 gallons a week and gets about 20 miles per gallon.

“I sold my gas car, so we're committed,” he said. “We save about $800 a month.”

Roger Courtney in Jefferson, S.C., runs Smoke House restaurant and powers his 1980s Ford pickup truck on his own brew of kitchen grease (from his restaurant), kerosene, gas and a bonding chemical. He has successfully logged 3,000 miles.

Courtney said he was spending $130 to $140 a week for 40 gallons of diesel. Now he estimates it costs about $32 for 40 gallons, or about 80 cents a gallon.

Here's what persuaded these two to switch to recycled cooking oil and drive what insiders call “grease cars.”

It's cheap. You can get the grease free from restaurants, which usually have to pay someone to cart it away.

It works. If you ride in a car powered by recycled grease, the only difference you might notice is a fried-food smell.

No single group has an accurate count of how many people use recycled vegetable oil to run cars and trucks. However, an online search will find you people from all over the country who use it and can tell you how to prepare vehicles and fuel.

There's plenty to consider before making the switch.

Neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor the U.S. Department of Energy considers recycled vegetable oil to be an alternative fuel. They point out that the grease can gum up a car's fuel system. Bunn and Courtney said the problems are minimal if fuel is properly prepared.

Used grease works best in old diesel engines, at least for now. If you've got a diesel car or truck newer than about 1985, you might need two fuel tanks, one for diesel and the other for grease.

The fuel can come only from plant oils: peanut, canola, soybean, rapeseed. You must find a consistent source – free used oil from a restaurant is perfect. (You could buy unused oil from the grocery store for around $15 a gallon, but that would defeat the purpose.)

You have to invest in a reliable filtering system to clean used cooking oil or risk damaging your engine. Based on Bunn's and Courtney's experiences, filtration systems can cost $1,500 to $2,700.

Cold weather might be a problem. The fuel will gel at about 32 degrees. Neither Bunn nor Courtney have used the fuel during winter. Dwight Patterson, a Charlotte mechanic who studied diesel engines, said there are fixes – use diesel fuel to start and warm the engine, then switch.

State laws and taxes can apply. In North Carolina, you don't have to pay taxes as long as you recycle vegetable oil only for yourself. Reggie Little, with the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, said some people have been fined for selling the fuel. He said he didn't know how many.

Jason Burrough of DieselGreen in Austin, Texas, works with a company that prepares recycled vegetable oil to sell. He said the fuel always will have a “niche” role.

“It's not the next wave of alternative fuel because of the way you have to prepare cars,” he said.

But for some, recycled vegetable oil seems perfect relief to pain at the gas pump.

Courtney said he was giving away the grease he used at his restaurant. Then he learned he could use it to power his truck.

“I'm too tight to buy diesel fuel. I'm not going to do it if I don't have to,” said a grinning Courtney. “People are just getting tired of the prices, and aren't going to take it.”