Grease Lightning

At an environmental event I recently attended, the speaker quipped that there are two camps when it comes to humanity's effect on global climate change: either you believe it, or you're wrong. The crowd of "greenies," in on the joke, chuckled. But my friend and I glanced at each other sideways, guiltily — after all, we live and breathe in Detroit, where the world's addiction to fossil fuels got a heavy ramp-up in last century. Let's face it: The ubiquity of the automobile turned humanity from a recreational user into a full-on oil junkie.

The Big Three's nosedive may please environmentalists, and perhaps rightfully so. But in an already-suffering city in which just about every family is connected to the auto industry, this stuff isn't written in plain black and white — although former Gov. John Engler was quite adept at getting Michiganders to believe that there were clear distinctions between what's right for the economy and the environment.

When looking at things from a macro level, that can seem to be the case. Change, on any large scale, is painful and slow. (Or bloody and quick.) But when it comes down to personal decisions, like where we live and how we eat, change can look not only more achievable, but economically smart as well.

Josh Piggot took his fossil fuel usage into his own hands by converting his vehicle to run on used vegetable grease. Sounds simple? Well, it actually was. Inspired and guided by a book entitled From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, the boiler repairman now spends absolutely nothing on gasoline.

Piggot's1996 F350 cube truck now runs on used vegetable grease that he procures from local restaurants, preferring the relatively clean stuff that comes out of Thai kitchens. In July 2004, he completed the conversion process in just a couple of days, and is now looking to offer his services to other Detroit-area diesel vehicle owners. Although he believes that "most people with mechanical aptitude can do it themselves," he sees a potential cottage industry in not only converting vehicles, but in organizing the grease pick-up from area restaurants and filtering the product so that it will be ready to go straight into a customer's fuel tank.

The company he is in the process of starting up is called Dr. Soy Diesel, and the doctor has some big plans. He is unaware of anyone else in Detroit doing this type of work and believes that his services will increase local demand for biofuel vehicles. (That same inverted supply and demand theory has seemed to work well for suburban housing developers, right?)

Piggot intends to create relationships with local mass rendering companies that deal in used grease in the thousands of pounds. He would then set up a supply filling station for his clients with the already filtered product. While he says doing the filtering isn't extremely difficult, it is messy and time-consuming for the average person. He explains, "If you don't have a passion, you're not going to do it — unless you really burn a lot of fuel or really want to make an impact on the environment."

He sees potential growth in not only personal vehicles, but in fleets like school buses, which are notoriously dirty-burners. His vision stretches to include schools one day using cafeteria grease to run their buses.

Piggot isn't the only one thinking these things. Cursory Internet searches will turn up hundreds of conversion kits, filtering "how-to's" and testimonials from the converted (pun intended). As would be expected, Europe is ahead of the U.S. in this field. The number of renegade diesel-burners in England actually caused officials to crack down on biodiesels because there was no road tax being collected from users such as the set rate per gallon the government gets at petroleum pumps.

And there's the rub. The ugly big-picture surfaces again. Looked at from Piggot's perspective, biofuel is a no-brainer. He saves on gas and does his part to help the environment and lessen dependence on foreign oil. Looked at from the side of government, this is a major shift in the status quo that effects not only trade, but the in-the-red budget.

And in industry's eyes? Well, let's put it this way. GM is producing 400,000 "FlexFuel" vehicles this year, which can run on either regular gasoline or E85 (gasoline that is 85% ethanol). In 2005, GM sold 9.7 million vehicles worldwide. The math says it all: we're a long way from market saturation, people.

Maybe it's liberating to only look at problems from a micro, personal, manageable angle. We each have tremendous power for change. Or perhaps it is frustrating to realize that the top-down methodology of government and industry is, by its very nature, far from progressive.

So it would be totally understandable to shrug your shoulders, daunted by the very vastness of global problems. But it can be a testament to human doggedness that some people embrace this challenge and take ownership of their own lifestyle, as has Piggot.

And what if we all did that?

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Model D's development news editor. This is her latest installment in an ongoing series about sustainability efforts in Detroit. Her past stories have been about bioremediation, community gardens and energy-efficient building.


Josh Piggot with his Ford F350 Truck

The Diesel / Oil Converter

Josh Piggot, Dr. Soy

The "Gas Tank" which holds the recycled vegetable oil

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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