Women are pioneering the emerging biofuels industry, which uses recycled vegetable oil to power vehicles that produce far fewer emissions than diesel fuel.
While women may not have been among the 19th-century oil wildcatters who drilled the ground for black gold, they are getting in on the ground floor of the biofuel industry in a big way. This clean-fuel movement allows motorists to recycle the vegetable oil that cooked French fries, donuts and Chinese food to fuel private cars and trucks, city fleets, even school buses.
Biodiesel isn’t new. Near the turn of the 20th century, Rudolf Diesel developed the diesel engine to run on peanut oil. The German inventor demonstrated his design at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, but died in 1913. His veggie-oil powered engine fell out of fashion because of the oil boom. Petroleum-based fuel became the cheapest option for running diesel-powered cars.
A century later, women from Berkeley, Calif., to Philadelphia, Penn., to Waynesboro, Va., are pushing biodiesel, which can be used in any diesel burning car, truck or bus. Women are running cooperative biodiesel businesses, which buy the fuel from a central distributor such as Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, Calif., and sell it to the public. They also teach college classes about its chemistry, work as consultants for commercial biodiesel entrepreneurs and travel the country teaching people how to home brew veggie oil.
Five women have even made a road movie, “Fat of the Land,” about the stranglehold of petroleum and the frying oil alternative. The women drove from New York to San Francisco stopping at “greasy spoons” along the way and asking for leftover frying oil to fuel their vehicle. They tease that their movie was “one long greasy skid mark across the asphalt of America,” but it got people to stand up and take notice of what the women were doing.
“We were just average Janes,” said filmmaker Nicole Cousino. “If we could do this with anyone else could too. The biggest irony was people along the road didn’t believe it could be done.”
Women have a variety of reasons for supporting biodiesel.
“The reason the biodiesel movement has happened with women first is we’ve got kids and we are thinking generations ahead of ourselves,” said SaraHope Smith, one of the co-founders of BioFuel Oasis, a retail cooperative in Berkeley. “Women are connected to the generations that came before and the generations that are yet to come.”
Two years ago, Smith and her business partner Jennifer Radtke, who are both in their 30s, poured their savings and even their retirement nest eggs into a business that has yet to turn a profit. And they said they’d do it all over again.
“In biodiesel there is a feeling that we are doing the right thing for the greater good and not just for our own benefit or self-interest,” said Smith, who taught yoga and worked at a children’s after-school program to make ends meet in the early days of the venture. These days, she is putting 100 percent of her time and energy into the business and is often relying on credit cards for daily living expenses.
“In the big picture, a fuel that is giving back what it takes out is a winning scenario. That is long-term sustainability.”
Dozens of the women who have made biodiesel their life’s work say they promote the fuel because they want to reduce dependence on foreign energy supplies.
“Foremost in my mind is the national security implications of being able to produce your own fuel and not be dependent on foreign sources for oil, for fuel, for energy,” said Patricia Star Allen, a Maryland woman who is doing organizational development for a company interested in producing biodiesel.
“We got into this because we were looking at reducing fuel consumption,” said Kimber Holmes, co-founder of the BioFuel Station in Northern California’s Laytonville. The BioFuel Station has a 1,500-gallon tanker that is used to make deliveries to those using biodiesel in the rural agricultural community. But in a matter of months, customers will be able to drive into a “fill and go” station and pump the veggie oil into their tanks. The war in Iraq has added increased urgency to expansion plans because the women believe the U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East is the primary motivator for the war.
This country “is at war for oil and we don’t want to support that,” Holmes said. Holmes added she uses and sells biodiesel for the same reasons she buys organic food.
“We are trying to support a healthier and cleaner way of doing things for our bodies, the environment and for the people around us,” she said. “We were looking at what we could do in our world to make a difference, and one of the things was to drive a car that runs on alternative fuel.”
Scientific research confirms that biodiesel exhaust has a less harmful impact on human health than petroleum diesel fuel, according to the National Biodiesel Board.
Easy on the Environment
Biodiesel is a non-petroleum fuel made of vegetable oil; often soybean, canola or hemp. It can be blended with petroleum in any percentage and used in any diesel engine without alterations or conversions. The non-toxic substance is registered as a fuel and fuel additive with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Studies show that burning biodiesel significantly reduced the impacts of global warming, smog and asthma. It produces at least 70-percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline and is 85-percent biodegradable in water in less than a month, experts say.
It’s not only good for the planet, but for diesel car engines as well. The use of biodiesel can actually extend the life of a diesel engine because it is more lubricating, according to the Biodiesel Board. Some users also say it gives their cars a little more torque while increasing their mileage per gallon.
Stretching the dollar is significant because retail biodiesel can run about $3.50 a gallon, unless it is homebrewed. Homebrewers say you can make the product for as little as 50 cents a gallon.
“That’s one of the neat things about biodiesel, people can make it themselves, quite efficiently and at a low cost,” said Holmes.
A California woman named Maria “Girl Mark” Alovert leads biofuel home-brewing workshops in the Bay Area, the Midwest and the East Coast. Alovert is the author of the “Biodiesel Homebrewers Guide,” an 85-page self-published textbook that guides brewers through making one-liter test batches.
Rachel Burton teaches “Sustainable Energy Solutions: Biofuels” at Central Carolina Community College in North Carolina and says there’s no shortage of students. “My phone rings off the hook,” she said. “They want to know when the next biodiesel class is.”
Usually the classes are about one-third women, said Burton, who is also the co-founder and a driving force behind Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, N.C., a co-op with about 25 active members.
Spreading the Word
The biodiesel industry is a growing one. There are more than 20 companies in the United States that are manufacturing and marketing biodiesel and some 20 new firms reporting their plans to construct dedicated biodiesel plants down the line, according to the National Biodiesel Board.
Allen knew little about the alternative fuel before she got involved with an entrepreneur interested in producing biodiesel earlier this year. Now she wants to bring other women into the fold.
“While I’m consulting with a male-owned company, I would love to see women have an early role in biodiesel,” she said. “I’m very encouraged by what I’m seeing. What I’ve learned about succeeding in business is that if we have a core of women coming together early on we will have that strength and support network for each other. That is critical.”
Kristin Bender is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.
Women’s eNews. Posted November 22, 2004.