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The straight vegetable-oil fuel alternative

Brenda Studabaker and Rich Porres are proud of this Dodge Ram 2500, converted by Grease Kings to run on SVO.

Brenda Studabaker and Rich Porres are proud of this Dodge Ram 2500, converted by Grease Kings to run on SVO.

SN&R Photo By Emily Page

I’m standing next to a Midtown auto garage, listening to the engine hum of a 2003 Volkswagen TDI, and waiting for the sinfully-thick scent of burning gasoline to assault my senses. But it doesn’t. This engine smells like French fries.

This VW family wagon is powered by straight vegetable oil. While other people trash used cooking oil, these drivers pour a modified version of it into their gas tank. While other drivers spend almost $3 a gallon on gasoline, the owners of this car ride hundreds of miles on a fuel source that’s donated from local restaurants.

SVO is a complicated fuel alternative. But it’s not too good to be true. Cost and natural resources make the concept difficult to sell nationwide, but for folks who convert their diesel engines to run on veggie oil, life is cleaner, greener and smellier (in a good way).

“In the past three months, I’ve spent zero dollars and traveled 3,400 miles [by car],” said Brenda Studabaker of Grease Kings, the aforementioned Midtown auto garage, which is devoted to SVO engine conversions. “I never think about gas prices anymore. But when I do, it’s crazy.”

Studabaker’s boyfriend, Rich Porres, opened Grease Kings two years ago. The garage has converted 50 to 60 diesel cars to run on SVO, including Studabaker’s Mercedes 300D. Older diesel cars can run on single SVO tanks. Newer diesel cars usually run on a two-tank system, which warms an engine with diesel fuel before flipping a switch on the dashboard to alert the engine that it’s hot enough for the SVO to kick in.

“People prefer to have two individual fuel systems,” said Porres. “If something happens with one, you have another one as a backup.”

Porres and Studabaker prefer SVO because it’s “pure.” Hybrids still rely on fossil fuel. Biodiesel requires a chemical conversion, often using methanol or sodium hydroxide, while thermal energy converts SVO to a workable viscosity. And SVO is a biomass, meaning the carbon released when the fuel burned is offset by the carbon absorbed during its past life as various plants.

But the SVO fuel alternative has its challenges.

“In order to go straight veggie oil, you have to be mechanical or have a lot of money,” said Steve Bash of Sacramento Biofuels Network, a biodiesel buyer’s club. “It’s much more experimental.”

While biodiesel will power a regular diesel engine, SVO requires an engine conversion, averaging between $1,100 and $3,500.

And there’s just not enough supply to meet a nationwide demand—yet. In its 2004 report Biomass Oil Analysis: Research Needs and Recommendations, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that agriculture production in the United States could produce around 10 billion gallons of biodiesel annually unless higher-yield crops like algae are used. But the Energy Information Administration projects this summer’s U.S. motor oil consumption at 399 million gallons of oil each day.

“We’re not talking about [SVO] taking over because that’s a totally ridiculous idea,” said Porres. “This is a small solution.”

But it’s an idea that works for many who’ve chosen it.

Ed Alagozian, administrator for Sacramento Biofuels Co-op, is happy with his 1999 SVO-powered Volkswagen Beatle.

“I used to use biodiesel,” said Alagozian. “As I learned about how toxic biodiesel was, [SVO] just seemed like a cleaner way to go.”