The bespectacled Andrew Pannell is sitting behind the counter at Dogpatch Biofuels when I arrive on a Saturday afternoon. He’s been helping out at this filling station Tuesdays through Saturdays since May 2011. He’s the Operations Manager, but also a mechanical mentor, gearhead and ardent evangelist of the alternative fuel known as biodiesel.
Pannell is what one might call a born-again motorist. Before his conversion to bio a few years ago, he drove a 1996 Acura Integra GS-R. It had an AEM cold air snorkel intake with K&N high-flow cone filter.
It was fun, but taking it to the gas station left him with nagging feelings of guilt. “Every time I pumped gas, all I could think was, ‘I’m killing the environment,’” he says. It was a super-fun car in the days of blissful ignorance. Slow-motion suicide.
But something had changed by the time Pannell’s first child was born. I can’t do this, he realized. My car is damning my child’s future.
Instead of the Acura TSX he had planned to buy, Pannell opted for a diesel-powered 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300D. It cost $3,500, and it was immaculate. Metallic silver with a black leather interior. Ready for biodiesel right off the bat.
I never have to go to a gas station again. No more nagging guilt — I’ve been liberated!
An Experimental Fuel
It takes a special kind of fuel to make a man swap a quick-reflexed Acura for a 30-year-old, oil-burning Benz. They tend not to ZOOOOMMMMM as much as they CLACKCLACKCLACKCLACKCLACK — if not properly maintained.
President Obama talks a lot lately about an “alternative energy” strategy, one that will help these United States kick their addiction to all things petroleum. And while hybrid Priuses and electric Leafs are fine and dandy, it’s hard to get more “alternative energy” than biodiesel.
In many ways, biodiesel feels custom-designed for San Francisco. Unlike ethanol, it can be completely sustainable. It’s commonly produced from recycled canola oil, the junk left over from fast-food restaurants and fried turkeys on Thanksgiving. No humanity-crushing petroleum required. It’s a low-emissions fuel. It can power a diesel-engined vehicle with few to no modifications. And — mmmmmm! — the exhaust from unprocessed cooking oil smells vaguely like french fries.
For six years, Dogpatch Biofuels on Pennsylvania Avenue and 22nd Street has been the only station in the city offering the greasy elixir to San Franciscans.
It’s an experimental fuel, to be sure. A lack of quality control in the Wild West days of the mid-2000s stunted its growth and reputation — basically, lousy refining destroyed some cars. That might be why, when the president called this year for a comprehensive alternative energy strategy, he never mentioned biofuels — no matter that Dogpatch biodiesel costs $4.89 a gallon and premium-grade gasoline in the Bay Area isn’t far behind.
But in the world of true believers — some 1000 in San Francisco, and with a record 1.1 billion gallons produced nationwide in 2011 — not even a president’s remarks can cause too much of a stir. Things are different now, say the Dogpatch staff — the industry is maturing, we’ve made great strides in who we are.
Roy just pulled up in his Mercedes station wagon, born in the era of Carter and cardigans. You can tell he’s arrived because Dogpatch staff have put a rubber hose in front of the fuel pump that when driven over triggers a trolley bell in the office. DING DING!
We walk over to the wagon. I guess that Roy’s car is a turbocharged 300TD, made between 1980 and 1985. In Benzglish, a “T” means “touring and transport,” and a “D” means “diesel.”
“It’s a 1979, actually,” Roy says. And it’s not turbocharged. Pannell chimes in that the 300 was a non-turbo when it was first introduced.
Roy’s model of Benz, which Pannell and other owners refer to by its technical name, the W123, is a death-defying Houdini of the automotive world. They’re heavy and a little homely, but the diesels will withstand just about anything short of a NATO air strike. The parts still cost Mercedes bucks, but Pannell believes these panzers tend to break down less.
If you aim to “go veg,” the W123s work nicely. As Caltrain roars along the tracks below the station, Roy pops the hood and proudly shows me the parts he installed that let the car run on straight-up cooking oil.
Behold — the incredible, versatile diesel engine!
With the right modifications, the diesel owner can even go beyond processed biodiesel for the ultimate in petro-free living. It’s complicated, naturally. And expensive: new fuel lines, a heat exchanger, hose clamps, zip ties … the total can run upwards of $2,000.
But the cooking oil is why Roy was drawn to the bio community in the first place. You mean I can run my car on vegetable oil? Cool! Roy buys his oil at Smart & Final.
After seeking advice from Pannell on a rust issue, Roy leaves, and Pannell and I walk back into the shack. Now that Roy’s gone, Pannell warns me about going veg.
“Veg is very work-intensive,” he says. He’s not sure if it’s great for the car in the long run — fatty vegetable oil tends to congeal in the fuel system like a six-dollar burger congeals in your arteries.
A Fuel is Born
Pannell asks if I’d like to see a sample of Bently Biofuels’ latest batch.
The amber-colored fuel sample is bottled in a mason jar, like the others. Pannell takes it from the shelf and holds it up to the light seeping through the tin roof, like a beekeeper showing off this month’s honey. This one is from February.
“Maintaining a high-grade product is critical to establish biodiesel as an important fuel.” This comes from Jolie Ginsburg, the co-owner of Dogpatch Biofuels.
Biodiesel is a more refined and processed product than vegetable oil. Production starts with the grease that customers dump into the designated bins at Dogpatch. Trucks from SFGreasecycle, a program run by the Public Utilities Commission, pick the oil up, and Bently Biofuels purchases and delivers it to its refinery, 210 miles away in Minden, Nevada, near Carson City, for processing.
Yes, the collection trucks run on bio, too.
“The City Freaked Out”
It’s quiet now inside the office. During the lull between customers, Pannell recalls the period between 2005 and 2007. Those were boom years, but some station owners grew careless.
Maybe Point Richmond-based biochemist Randall von Wedel said it best, at the 2012 California Biodiesel and Renewable Diesel Conference in San Francisco: “Severe fuel problems can cause significant vehicle damage.” In the closing speech of the conference, he related how poor-quality biodiesel damaged nearly a half-dozen trucks in Berkeley’s fleet.
“A bunch of guys tried to rush into the market, and … a lot of bad fuel made it in,” Pannell says. According to him, this included fuel delivered to San Francisco’s bus fleets.
“The city freaked out,” he says. “They said they were going to back off.”
In the aftermath, business declined, contracts with city fleets fell through, and some biodiesel stations even folded. Autopia in San Mateo, once the Peninsula’s go-to filling station, closed its doors in 2010. The Peninsula now has no bio filling station at all; the closest is Dogpatch.
But there was no tap-dancing on Autopia’s grave. “There are so few of us, it’s not really a competitive environment,” Pannell says. “There was some mourning when Autopia folded.”
The Supply of Spent Cooking Oil Is Finite
And now it’s 2012, and old reputations die hard.
One man pulls up beside the pumps — DING DING! — in a white Ford Excursion. Behold: Here at Dogpatch is a wooly mammoth of an SUV, the most indulgent, fuel-chugging hippie heart attack of the Clinton years.
But inside the baby-blue Dogpatch shack, he’s just a guy who says he can’t take his vehicle to his mechanic any more since he switched to bio.
“Every problem I have with my engine is automatically blamed on the fuel,” he says.
But there’s a bigger issue that critics raise with biodiesel, one that goes beyond mechanic prejudice or governmental foot-dragging: the supply of spent cooking oil is finite. America is a fast-food nation, yet there’s only so much grease available from McDonald’s fryers every week.
This isn’t a news flash for Dogpatch. “Demand will exceed supply, eventually,” Pannell freely admits.
So what would happen if everyone in America jumped on the bio bandwagon? Granted, biodiesel is made just as easily from soybean or rapeseed crops, but those are the same crops that are converted to cooking oil in the first place. More rapeseed would have to be planted to meet demand. A Princeton biofuels study released in 2008 concluded that this would not be pretty: clearing previously untouched land to support our biodiesel habit would release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
This somewhat traps biodiesel in its own small niche. For now.
“Forget rapeseed,” Pannell says. “The next step will be non-food crops, such as algae.”
Some day. Algae-based fuels are still in the early stages of development. Bently’s “Agrowdynamics” subsidiary in Minden maintains a rapeseed crop to supplement its fuel, but no algae division yet.
Past the Initial Blip
“I knew [biodiesel] wasn’t the end-all,” Jolie Ginsburg says about switching her fleet of tour buses from her other business venture, Incredible Adventures, to bio. “But I knew it could be a way to change our habits.”
While biodiesel may not be the solution to weaning a nation off its lust for oil, Dogpatch believes it’s part of the solution. And the station staff is hopeful that 2012 will be a good year.
Dogpatch now supplies biodiesel for SFGreasecycle’s fleet of collection trucks. Membership has quadrupled over the past six years, although the number is still only around 1000. It fluctuates, according to Ginsburg. Now they’ve begun work on an electronic card that unlocks their pumps for late-night fuel fixes.
As for today, well, Pannell felt it was a pretty good day. The station made $187 in the first three hours of his shift.
“High gas prices always make people freak out,” he says.