HEBER CITY A faint odor of restaurant grease lingers in the back of a steel welding shop off U.S. 40, but no burgers or fries are served here.
Over the vrooms of diesel-powered trucks driving through the Heber Valley, Bill Hartlieb explains how two 55-gallon drums are filtering waste vegetable oil, converting it into fuels that can power cars and trucks, as well as farm and construction equipment.
"This is water and funk and Lord knows what," Hartlieb says, referring to vegetable oil in one of the drums that he got from a pub in Park City. "Chicken bits and all that crap. And so it's not glamorous. I wouldn't recommend every garage have a biodiesel-making plant."
Hartlieb's setup is a refinery of sorts, small scale and relatively low tech and also illegal, according to federal law.
But he disputes that his hobby violates the Clean Air Act, since fuels derived from vegetable oil have fewer emissions than petroleum.
"I think it's really kind of a gray issue," he says.
Even so, he says he can't make most of the fuel he needs, and he ends up buying 80 percent of his fuel at a Park City station that sells biodiesel.
High fuel prices and global warming have made fuels derived from vegetable oil more attractive. Hartlieb is among a growing number of Utahns who are using and making biodiesel and straight vegetable oil fuel, or SVO.
For Hartlieb, the process of making fuel from soybean and canola oils is about finding a renewable alternative to petroleum.
"The big difference is this comes from a farmer's field," he says. "This doesn't require an Iraq war."
It's also about experimentation and the scientific process. "I just love to be able to tinker with this stuff," says Hartlieb, who has a degree in aerospace engineering from St. Louis University and works in product development at Backcountry.com.
But the growing popularity of tinkering with fuels derived from vegetable oil may be fraught with legal consequences. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of companies that are certified to convert vehicles to alternative fuel. No companies for SVO kits are listed.
"Basically, all diesel fuels and gasoline fuels and fuel additives are required to be registered with the EPA," says Jeff Kimes, a Denver-based EPA environmental engineer. "Let's say you want to start making biodiesel and introduce it into commerce. You have to register it with the EPA."
At least one SVO conversion-kit company is in the process of testing with the EPA. But the fuel has not been approved by the EPA.
"Our primary concern is people introducing these fuels and modifying these vehicles changes, the emissions from these very clean cars that have already been demonstrated to meet the emissions standards," so that the vehicles release emissions that haven't been tested by the EPA, Kimes says.
People who are involved in the "introduction of vegetable oil for use as a motor vehicle fuel would violate the Clean Air Act," says Catherine Milbourn, an EPA spokeswoman, based in Washington, D.C.
The maximum penalty could be $32,500 per day per violation for mechanics and companies that convert vehicles to run on vegetable oil. Individuals who make the fuel can be fined as much as $2,750 a day, according to the EPA. Milbourn says the EPA has investigated some alleged violations but can't comment because the cases are ongoing.
Locally, the Utah Division of Air Quality does not regulate fuel or individual vehicles, because the division's responsibility is to implement the state's clean-air plan. "There's no mechanism to test fuel," says Joe Thomas, a division manager.
Processing vegetable oil
The main difference between biodiesel and SVO fuel is that biodiesel is sold at many gas stations in Utah and throughout the United States, although biodiesel also can be produced in private garages.
Biodiesel sold by retailers is legal, but biodiesel from private garages is not legal unless it is certified by ASTM International, an organization of technical, consumer and government experts who work on standardizing products and services, in part to ensure safety, say makers and consumers of vegetable-oil fuels. SVO fuel is not sold by retailers in the United States.
Another difference between biodiesel and SVO fuel is that biodiesel can be filled into diesel tanks without much modification of the vehicle. Some experts recommend fuel lines or fuel-injection systems be changed when using biodiesel.
Drivers interested in using SVO fuel, however, must purchase conversion kits that typically cost $1,200 to $3,000 before installation. The cost depends on the vehicle.
In the back of the Heber City welding shop, Hartlieb demonstrates the different processes for making biodiesel and SVO. A chemical process is required for biodiesel, to strip glycerine from the oil. A mechanical process is required for SVO.
Heat is integral for the SVO mechanical process. Hartlieb aims to heat the drums of waste vegetable oil 150-160 degrees. The drum is lined with a filter that collects food particles. During the heating process, the oil rises over the water, and Hartlieb can drain the water from the bottom of the drum. Remaining in the tank is a thick, coffee-colored substance that's the SVO fuel.
"Imagine salad dressing: vegetable oil and water," Hartlieb says. "In the fridge, it's mixed and gets thicker. If you take it and raise the temperature, it quickly wants to separate. Or hot water and washing dishes, it cuts the grease."
Usage by the numbers
As a result of the differences between the two biofuels, fewer drivers use SVO fuel than biodiesel. But it's hard to determine just how many people use fuels derived from vegetable oil, because so much of it is made in private garages.
In 2007, 500 million gallons of biodiesel were produced in the United States for retail, says Amber Thurlo Pearson, spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board, which represents the industry. In comparison, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2007, the United States consumed more than 142 billion gallons of gasoline.
Biodiesel can be sold in blends with petroleum diesel. It's obvious at the pump: B20 indicates the blend contains 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petrodiesel. B100 is 100 percent biodiesel.
Perhaps the most famous biodiesel brand is BioWillie, a B20 blend made by Earth Biofuels Inc. and endorsed by country music singer Willie Nelson. BioWillie is sold primarily at truck stops in California and six Southern states.
The National Biodiesel Board, based in Jefferson City, Mo., began in 1992, during the early stages of biodiesel development. The board touts the benefits of the fuel: It's made of plants grown by American farmers and could provide the country with a fuel source that's more immune to global politics. It's a renewable source of energy. Low blends of biodiesel cost the same as petroleum diesel. And biodiesel emissions are lower.
A 2002 EPA report compared soybean-oil in a B20 blend of biodiesel and 100 percent petrodiesel. With the B20, emissions from carbon dioxide decreased 11 percent, hydrocarbon decreased 21.1 percent, particulate matter decreased 10.1 percent and nitric oxide increased 2 percent.
About 1,400 retail sites throughout the United States sell biodiesel, including about 800 truck-accessible pumps. In Utah, about 20 stations sell biodiesel from Logan to Moab.
The biofuel underground
Graydon Blair of Syracuse sells supplies for making biodiesel at UtahBiodieselSupply.com. He started the business in 2005, a side venture while working full time for Intermountain Healthcare. He likened his business to "selling supplies to make beer, but I sell the supplies to make biodiesel."
He reached out to the biodiesel community at conferences and on Internet message boards, and the business grew. In July 2007, he was so busy with the business that he quit his day job. Now, he ships more than 100 orders a week.
Less than 1 percent of his business is in Utah, he says. The majority of the business is on the East and West coasts. He also has shipped to Canada, South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom and Hungary.
Blair knows that he could technically be in violation of EPA rules by making biodiesel. "I've heard that before," he said. "I've never seen a case where they've gone after someone. I'm not worried. I think the IRS would come after me long before the EPA."
Two years ago, Blair was involved in trying to mediate a dispute in Utah between the people who make biodiesel and SVO fuel, and grease-collection and rendering companies that use grease to enrich animal feed and trade it on commodities markets. The issue was brought to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, which deals with transporting and disposing of waste.
The companies said the small-time garage refiners weren't obeying health regulations, and some garage refiners were even stealing the oil from restaurants. As a result, it is now illegal to collect grease from restaurants in Salt Lake County without obtaining a liquid hauling permit, which requires haulers have general liability insurance.
"It's really geared to businesses and commercial, and I realize there are some hobbyists, and we need to work on a policy to deal with that," says Brian Bennion, deputy director of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.
Blair says the biodiesel- and SVO-making community has gone underground as a result of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department's regulations. "Word got around real quick: Don't collect oil in Salt Lake County," Blair said.
High demand, high risk
Ron Tribe of North Ogden has struggled to obtain waste vegetable oil, which he wanted in order to make biodiesel for his pickup.
"That's the tough part now: There's so much competition for the used vegetable oil," Tribe says. "We were doing little small cafes, but now even the big collection agencies have signed a long-term contract with them."
Tribe estimates it costs 80-85 cents a gallon to produce biodiesel, minus the labor. He had been making just enough to fill up a portion of his truck's tank. He topped it off with Chevron diesel.
"We had a lot of confidence in the recipe and our methods," he says. "We just wanted baby steps, if I could use that term. The first batch, we did B10. Then B12, then B50. Then we lost our source for the oil."
With his vegetable-oil sources drying up and the legal ramifications of making garage biodiesel, Tribe has stopped making it. "I wanted to do the right thing, to be law-abiding," he says. "It turned out to be so much more work and hassle than it was worth."
Berk Tuttle, owner of Taggart's Grill in Morgan County, gets phone calls on a weekly basis from people looking for waste vegetable oil. "We get people begging us," he says. "In contrast, we used to have to pay people to get it less than a year ago."
Tuttle purchases 115 pounds of vegetable oil a week, and for the past five months, an Ogden resident has turned the waste oil into biodiesel. However, that arrangement may not last for long. Tuttle is considering purchasing a diesel pickup and filling up with biodiesel. "It would be free fuel for me," he says.
But it's against state tax law to burn biodiesel without paying fuel taxes, says Utah State Tax Commission spokesman Charlie Roberts, and if drivers make the fuel in a garage, they must pay, too. For each gallon of gasoline purchased, the federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents for diesel, according to the Energy Information Administration. In Utah, gas and diesel are taxed an additional 24.5 cents a gallon.
"A biodiesel fuel is a special fuel, and so they should be filling out a special user return and paying the 24.5 cents tax per gallon," Roberts says.
The Tax Commission's take on SVO fuel is that it shouldn't be taxed, because it is illegal by the EPA.
Blair, of UtahBiodieselSupply.com, says he doesn't know of anyone in Utah who has been caught by the Tax Commission. He says it would be hard for government to find. "You'd have to be doing something where they came and dipped your tank," he says.68 comments on this story
Hartlieb, in Heber City, plans to continue his vegetable-oil experiment. He knows, though, that he's avoiding fuel taxes that are required by state and federal law.
"Twenty-five cents per gallon is probably a fair tax, because you have to fight a war, a $1 billion a day war, so you have to go get that," Hartlieb says about the government. "That's the dispute, but it's a pretty small dispute."