The Real Homebrew

Bio-Diesel: a slick mission

Few people would consider frying their food with gasoline, but Adam Kreek (left) and Sam Torrance believe the deep fryer is exactly where the best fuel comes from.

Bio-Diesel: a slick mission

Few people would consider frying their food with gasoline, but two Victoria men — and hundreds of co-op members — believe the deep fryer is exactly where the best fuel comes from: and they are on a slick mission to grease mentalities about how everyone can fill up.

Sam Torrance, regional manager and part-owner of the Victoria-based Greasecycle company, is committed to recycling waste cooking oil and turning it into carbon-neutral energy alternatives — specifically, bio-diesel. But before images of murky, viscous and highly toxic liquid float into view, Torrance is quick to point out that, unlike petroleum, bio-diesel is nothing like its namesake’s counterpart.

“In many of these bio-diesel manufacturing plants, there are regulations . . . close to those around the production of petroleum,” says Torrance, 53. “But people have to remember this is nothing like petroleum — this is used vegetable oil. And yes, your diesel engine can run on it.”

Better than moonshine

Torrance is what you might call an environmental attendant — he’s a board member of the Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op, an active participant in Greasecycle and has participated in and helped organize a list of bio-diesel conferences around the Island. He has also taken pains to update his home to ensure that every last nook is as energy efficient as possible, along with planning a solarium to help heat and possibly power his house. Yet Torrance says he’s just doing his part. To him, getting involved with bio-diesel was the fastest way to make a real difference: both his ’83 Volkswagen Rabbit and his Ford F250 run on it.

“Most co-op members are on board with everything they can do to help the environment, and this was just what I saw as the most effective way I could cause rapid change,” he says. “There is still misinformation out there that bio-diesel is taking away from food sources, but part of our mission is to do some real education as well — we are only looking for recycled products, so it’s like a double environmental effort.”

A neighbourhood away, Adam Kreek is busy pulling his own green strings. Kreek, 31, is a board member for the Island Bio-diesel Co-op out of Victoria, and another part-owner of Greasecycle.

A gold-medal Olympic champion with men’s rowing, Kreek makes his living as a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator. His background is in geotechnical engineering and hydrology from the University of Victoria, but he first became fascinated with alternative fuel during his graduate studies at Stanford, where he created a bio-diesel reactor and became a partner in a start-up bio-diesel company, GoGreen BioFuels.

“We have a finite amount of petroleum oil in our society, and the reality is that it is not going to last forever — the demand cannot meet the supply, so it only makes sense to me that we need to be looking at alternative options,” says Kreek. “There’s a real power in working together as a team and a community to get initiatives like this going.”

When it comes to that fuel, bio-diesel has its own special reaction process, similar to any kitchen chemistry experiment: a fat (the veggie oil) and an alcohol (sometimes a small amount of ethanol or methanol) are mixed with a catalyst (often potassium hydroxide), which results in a notably less toxic version of traditional diesel fuel.

For purists willing to add some conversion equipment to their vehicles (as Torrance did with his Ford truck), an even simpler mix is known as SVO — straight vegetable oil — which is where a lot of the home brewing comes in. All you need is a little gravity and time, and that recycled kitchen grease is as good as gas. But while the concept is simple, creating fuel safely and accurately is a much more complex endeavour. Torrance and Kreek emphasize that becoming part of a co-op and community is an essential part of making the process sustainable for everyone.

“Often we see two types of people jump onboard the bio-diesel bandwagon: those who want to do what they can to help the environment, and those who want cheaper fuel,” says Torrance. “Unfortunately, often what we see is people trying their hands at their own homebrew, learning that it does take time and effort, and giving up after they’ve already convinced local restaurants to donate their oil. That’s what gives all of us a bad rap, and what makes it hard for everyone.”

Squeaky wheel gets the used oil

To become a member of the Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op, for example, members pay an annual fee of $50, then have access to a 24-hour pump that issues the bio-diesel at $1.50 a litre. And while that is slightly above the current cost of regular diesel, that price hasn’t changed in nearly three years. In fact, as more members and restaurants get on board, the lower the price can drop.

“What you see in that price is very similar to the organic or the local food movements,” says Torrance. “Yes, you are paying more, but you are getting more, too — and that cost isn’t reflective of gas wars, or what’s going on in Iran; it’s reflective of how much it actually cost to produce the fuel.”

A carbon assessment study performed by Vancouver Island University found that, compared to fossil petroleum, there was a 2.7-kilogram reduction of carbon for every litre of bio-fuel burned. The numbers speak for themselves — currently, there are close to 125 members involved in the Victoria-based co-op, with 175 members in the Cowichan co-op and 150 members in Vancouver’s co-op equivalent. Nearly 160 restaurants donate their used oil to the Greasecycle program, which offers free regular weekly or bi-weekly pick-up service. Recently, the Capital Regional District’s Hartland Landfill and the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s Bings Creek Recycling Centre started offering a free drop-off and collection bin for used cooking oil, which Torrance says is a huge boon to the co-ops and keeps oil out of sewage, which can otherwise wreak havoc in treatment systems.

Kreek and Torrance admit that there are still some drawbacks — namely, few and far Island pump options, a price that deters many looking for penny savings for their gas tanks and the engine requirements and upgrades needed to make a car run on bio-diesel. Still, Kreek says the more impetus and demand for alternative fuels, the more stable the movement will be.

“Bio-diesel has largely been a kind of underground and secret movement, operating out of people’s garages and greenhouses, because the support hasn’t been there,” says Kreek, whose forefront initiative with Island Bio-diesel Co-op is to get a pump placed in Victoria. “But this really is the time to make a change, and this is the right place to see that happen. Victoria wants alternatives, because the people here care — people want to be able to buy locally made fuel. And they should have that option.” M

To learn more or get involved, attend the Earth Day Fundraising Social on Sunday, April 22, 6 p.m. at bio-supporting business Six Mile Pub (494 Old Island Hwy). A multi-media evening will take place followed by a screening of the documentary Freedom, then entertainment by local Zydeco/Cajun band Bijoux du Bayou featuring Sam Torrance. Proceeds raised will support budding Island bio-fuel businesses. Suggested donation $10. For more information, visit greasecycle.ca or smellbetter.org.            

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