A musician. A mission to save the world.
understand why Rob del Bueno goes around to restaurants asking for their
used grease, you first have to know how he feels about George W. Bush.
is the case with most 31-year-olds who make a living playing and recording
louder-than-shit music, del Bueno -- aka Coco,
the bassist for
Man or Astro-man? and owner of Zero Return
Studios -- hates the president. Hates Bush's going-war-to-get-oil-for-all-his-rich-butt-buddies
try not to talk about it, but I can't help it sometimes. I was at this
party the other night and I could hear this conversation going on about
Bush and about the war and the dependency on foreign oil. And I just couldn't
went over there and said, 'Do you drive a car?' The guy said, 'Well, uh,
yeah.' I say, 'Then shut up!' People whine and bitch about the war and
Bush, but they don't do anything about it. They just whine."
Bueno is doing something about it, DIY punk style.
turning spent restaurant grease into a fuel that runs in any diesel engine.
It's easy, it's cheap, and it fits the same screw-the-man-I'll-do-it-my-own-damn-self
mentality that led del Bueno to build one of Atlanta's busiest independent
recording studios out of two enormous shipping containers.
now, del Bueno's operation is underground. He makes enough of the fuel,
called biodiesel, for his car and six customers. He pushes his product
to his friends and fans. The Man or Astro-man? website has this little
plug on its main page: "Ever want to tell Bush, and the big oil companys
to fu*k off?!... well check out Coco's latest endeavor ... It called Biodiesel,
and there is a lot going on with it. get on board!"
Coco/del Bueno has a much larger plan. He wants more than just a fleet
of subversive punk-powered vehicles on the streets of Atlanta. He wants
to be the father of Atlanta's biodiesel industry.
he's successful, and it's looking as if he just might be, he'll clean up
Atlanta's air, reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, and give
Georgia farmers a better boost than any lame-ass Farm Aid show ever did.
why we're on the road, hurtling south down I-75 in a 1974 Mercedes-Benz,
with a standard diesel engine, toward a meeting with none other than ex-Prez
Jimmy Carter. And behind us, there's not the signature black cloud of your
typical diesel, only the smell of the Earl's yummy French fries.For some
reason, that must have something to do with the anti-authority and free-spirited
nature of rock 'n' roll, many key players in the story of biodiesel are
musicians -- successful ones at that.
example, the guy who turned del Bueno on to the biodiesel movement is Paul
Sprawl, the winner of last year's Eddie's Attic Open-Mic Shootout. Sprawl,
a blues/folk musician from California, won a thousand bucks cash and two
days of free recording at Zero Return Studios.
hasn't recorded there yet, but when he checked out the studio last winter,
he told del Bueno about Jaia Suri, a musician who tours in a truck that
had been converted to run off of vegetable oil.
and everyone else who tours the country with nothing but a guitar, a dream
and a trunk full of grease, got the down-low on veggie fuel through From
the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, a book by Joshua Tickell. Tickell, who isn't
a musician but sure toured like one, rode across the country six years
ago in a Winnebago fueled by grease donated by restaurants. (Just guess
what he called the van. Now, it's a van fueled by used vegetable grease.
If you didn't guess "the Veggie Van," then you're likely working in the
started his journey in Florida with a tankful from Long John Silver's,
and ended it in California five months later. The dozens of news articles
chronicling his trip in the Veggie Van marked the beginning of the biodiesel
now you're probably wondering how it is that vegetable-based fuels can
power an engine built to run on a petroleum product. Time for a real quick
Rudolph Diesel unveiled his engine at the Universal Exhibition in Paris
in 1900, it wasn't powered by the lie that is so-called "diesel fuel."
It burned peanut oil.
Diesel's death in 1913, oil industry executives figured out that his engine
also could run on a byproduct of gasoline distillation. How convenient.
The diesel was quickly co-opted by gasoline producers and now runs almost
exclusively on their cheaper, incredibly dirtier, petroleum-based fuel.
was easy for the oil companies. They were the ones that already had pumps
on every street corner. Wait a minute. Actually, they're the ones that
own the trucks and pipelines, the refineries and the bazillions of gas
stations all over the world. And then there are the people who own most
of the oil fields in the Middle East -- they love it that Americans buy
SUVs that get shitty gas mileage. But they don't necessarily love Americans,
do they? N-o-o-o. Not to mention those guys in the White House and their
fondness for oil companies, and Iraq, and Haliburton's $2 billion contract,
and Dick Cheney and blah blah blah.
the point is that it's The Man who keeps alternative fuels like ethanol,
hydrogen, natural gas and biodiesel from ever catching on.
del Bueno plans to wrest away some of that control. He already makes biodiesel
for himself and like-minded friends, and he figures this Plains trip is
his first stop on the road toward building a fully functioning biodiesel
industry in Georgia.
University of Georgia Agriculture Department is bringing lawmakers and
biodiesel experts together in Carter's southwest Georgia hometown for a
summit to spur the creation of a biodiesel industry in Georgia. Del Bueno
hopes to meet people there who've already accomplished what he wants to
are staying in the slow lane. The car tops out at 75 mph because of the
its age, not because of any shortcomings in biodiesel performance. But
people are staring as they pass.
Biodiesel Express is covered in magnets. One says, "Fuel made from vegetable
oil = less landfill, cleaner water and supports regional farmers." Others
say, "Lower emissions = clean air, domestic = no foreign oil, renewable
= unlimited supply," and "Fueled with clean biodiesel!"
Bueno is oblivious to the gawkers. He's staring straight ahead and describing
his vision. His very ambitious vision.
of all, it includes biodiesel-powered trucks carrying large plastic tanks
that canvas Atlanta. They collect used grease from every Chick-fil-A, Long
John Silver's, McDonald's and every other restaurant that serves french
fries in the metro area. Then, the grease is processed into biodiesel at
VegEnergy world headquarters in Reynoldstown, which doubles as Zero Return
Bueno now makes about 55 gallons a week. He's found a Hawaiian company
that for $475,000 would build him a 500,000-gallon-a-year plant here in
Atlanta. But that's not big enough for del Bueno. He wants to produce a
million gallons a year, and in typical fashion, he suspects he could build
it better and cheaper himself if he could just get his hands on the Hawaiian
del Bueno pictures biodiesel-refueling stations in the parking lots of
every Whole Foods in Atlanta, or maybe Sevananda, maybe both. Because biodiesel
is nontoxic and biodegradable, the fueling stations will be unmanned. All
you'll have to do is drive up under an elevated tank, swipe a card and
del Bueno sees a home delivery system. He'll drop off a 55-gallon drum
equipped with a hand-pump and a fuel gauge in your driveway. Whenever the
gauge shows the barrel close to empty, you'll call up VegEnergy and del
Bueno'll drop off a full one.
big companies, cities and the state fall in love with the concept of clean
air and buy del Bueno's biodiesel. Coke and UPS will use biodiesel in their
trucks. Norfolk Southern and CSX use it in their trains. MARTA uses it
in buses. So will school systems. Eventually, he'll expand and start to
use straight vegetable oil, grown and processed by Georgia farmers.
the plan anyway. Business dorks would call it "a vertically integrated
business model." Just like the oil companies.
of course, there's a "but." There are several not-so-small "buts," in fact.
For one, del Bueno doesn't have the half a million dollars stuffed away
in one of his guitar cases.
"but" is air quality. While using biodiesel seriously reduces emissions
of almost all the big pollutants, there is one pollutant that it increases.
And it's a very important one. In fact, it's one of the major components
of Atlanta's ozone smog problem -- it's called nitrogen dioxide. A U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency study says biodiesel engines emit between
2 percent and 10 percent more Nox than regular diesel engines. Uh-oh.
Nox stuff sucks for del Bueno, who somewhat over-optimistically argues
that "biodiesel's advantages outweigh any slight disadvantage."
of the many cool things about biodiesel, though, is that the scientist
who's not too far off from solving its Nox problem lives right up the road
in Athens. And he also just happens to be another big-time rocker.
day, Dan Geller holds a masters in biological engineering and is a leading
biodiesel researcher. At night, Geller is half of the electronica duo I
Am The World Trade Center. Also, he's keyboardist for The Agenda, a garage/punk
Ramones-sounding band. And Geller is the founder of Kindercore Records,
which puts out his bands, plus Jet By Day, Maserati, Paper Lions and eight
other groups that regularly kick Atlanta's ass.
who works for the University of Georgia's Biological and Agricultural Engineering
Department, already has helped solve one of the problems that oil companies
-- specifically, Shell -- just love to point out as a drawback to biodiesel.
Because the stuff is organic, bacteria can spoil biodiesel, making it unusable.
Geller is using antioxidants to preserve the biodiesel. The good news is
that the antioxidants are flammable. Even better is that, when combusted,
they don't produce a single gram of pollution.
is now seeking funding to study how to reduce Nox emissions. One quick
fix would be to change the combustion timing of diesel engines. But that
would mean reworking an infrastructure already in place.
goal is to provide a fuel that works," Geller says. "It's a big issue for
us. There's so much emphasis on solving that [Nox problem] because [every
other type of pollution] is reduced."
of his published studies focus on things like chains of triglyceride-something-or-others
and oil combustion/ viscosity levels, which is weird because he moves around
UGA's mega-biolab the same way he works a stage. He moves fast, from one
experiment station to another, not in the white-coat uniform of a lab geek,
but in the requisite rocker uniform: jeans, sneakers, a vintage T-shirt
and an intentionally indie shaggy mop.
authored or helped author, with professor John Goodrum, 10 studies on biodiesel.
Once Geller's funding is in place, it shouldn't take him too long to solve
the Nox problem. He's already poured over two studies that demonstrate
Nox can be reduced.
dream is identical to del Bueno's: biodiesel pumps all over the state,
a vibrant rural economy, and less dependency on foreign oil.
ready to go, no question," he says. "There're so many advantages to biodiesel,
biodiesel has a long way to catch on in Georgia. Other alternative fuels,
like ethanol and hydrogen, are supported by federal tax credits and other
incentives -- stuff that's out of a researcher's (or a rock star's) hands.
other states, lawmakers have done plenty to help biodiesel along. They've
made it mandatory that every DOT bulldozer and school bus run on biodiesel;
they've even mandated that every diesel engine in the state use a mixture
of fuel that has at least 2 percent biodiesel.
university's Department of Agriculture wants to plant the seeds for those
kinds of incentives at the summit in Plains. Geller, unfortunately, couldn't
make the trip. He was already scheduled to play the Reading and Leeds Festivals
in England with the White Stripes, Blur and Beck. But he did say he wished
he could go once he found out that cool people would be there.
his fuel meter just above the half-full mark, del Bueno pulls into Plains.
He doesn't even have time to look for a Jimmy Carter bobble-head doll before
a pickup stops next to the Biodiesel Express.
driver asks del Bueno what's up with the magnet stickers. Turns out, the
driver is Elliott Minor, an Associated Press reporter in town to cover
the biodiesel summit. Minor rapid-fires questions at del Bueno and becomes
the first of many to ask to smell the Mercedes' exhaust.
takes a drag, asks del Bueno more questions and then calls out to a guy
walking across the street: "Hey Brad, do you want to smell this guy's tailpipe?"
guy is Brad Haire, who helped organize the summit. "No," he says, "I don't
know him well enough for that."
long, a whole bunch of reporters are snorting del Bueno's tailpipe, peppering
him with questions and scamming rides around the block in the Mercedes.
for more information
official site of the National Biodiesel Board has stats on biodiesel's
environmental benefits, tracks biodiesel legislation, and lists cities,
companies and schools that already use biodiesel.
online headquarters for a nonprofit group pushing biodiesel on the grassroots
level is also the place to order
Tickell's how-to manual, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and lots of other
star Dan Geller plays with his obsession, biodiesel, in a UGA laboratory.
Bueno with the former prez right after the press conference where nothing
at all was announced.
del Bueno's website includes the basics on biodiesel, investment opportunities
and contact info for del Bueno.
UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development's feasibility study
on biodiesel production in Georgia, which lays out how much of A boost
a biodiesel industry might give rural economies.
a train full of bigwigs is chugging in from Cordele for the show. The state
commissioners of insurance, natural resources, agriculture, and community
affairs pour out, along with some of the General Assembly's most powerful
rural legislators: House Speaker Terry Coleman, House Majority Leader Jimmy
Skipper, Agriculture Chairman Richard Ray, and on and on.
kind of weird. Good ol' boys like Bob Hanner, chairman of the House Natural
Resources Committee, and state Sen. George Hooks of Americus, aren't exactly
known as enviro-innovators.
they're making their pilgrimage to Plains partly to check out the tourist
train and partly to pay homage to Carter, who let's face it, is kind of
like a hippie compared to his fellow south Georgia politicians.
was a big advocate for solar power and windmills and all that other green
stuff back when he was president. And he's a peanut farmer, so running
diesel on vegetable oil is right up his alley.
also about the only politician who's ever given a speech that actually
impressed del Bueno. In a 15-minute talk to about 70 politicians, reporters
and biodiesel experts, Carter hits on all the virtues of biodiesel. Georgia
farmers could lift rural areas out of the doldrums by growing crops that
can be turned into oils for biodiesel production, he says.
is a renewable supply of energy, so that 100 years from now, or 200 years
in the future, Georgia and the rest of the country will be increasingly
independent of those uncertain supplies of oil.
is something that will never run out. It will always be a benefit environmentally,
economically with jobs and for the basic improvement of our state."
sounds practically like a biodiesel industry would be in place by the time
we get back to Atlanta. Del Bueno is feeling pretty good.
in the press conference afterward, everyone's buzz wears off. Del Bueno
stands in the back of the room and watches the politicians smile for the
cameras with Carter. Welcome to another photo op.
the former president if he recommends specific biodiesel legislation for
the lawmakers to take back to next year's General Assembly. His answer,
if that's what you want to call it, goes something like: Summits such as
this one serve the purpose of bringing together industry leaders and lawmakers,
so that progress can be made.
asks Coleman a similar question. "This summit should be a collaborative
effort to begin the process of starting to look at biodiesel as an option."
the time we head back to the del Bueno Biodiesel Express, I've asked a
dozen lawmakers if they're willing to commit to legislation requiring the
state's vehicles to use some biodiesel. "Definitely consider" is the strongest
answer I get.
Haire seems a bit more enthusiastic. Before we can get into the car, he
comes over and declares he knows del Bueno well enough now to smell his
tailpipe. Impressed, and probably a little hungry, Haire asks del Bueno
what he thought of the conference.
was pretty pleased with the entrepreneurial side of it. Those are the kinds
of people that in the end, end up making things happen," del Bueno says.
need to stop waiting around for the government to do something to help
them out and just do it themselves.
you can't get tax breaks or if you can't get a law requiring the state
or schools to use it, then take it to companies -- Coke, or UPS or Chick-fil-A
-- or to people who give a shit about air pollution, or wars over oil."
that was that. The show was just a show after all, and nothing's really
changed about del Bueno's vision. He's going ahead full speed, making contacts,
looking for investors and collecting used grease from restaurants. He remembers
it's Tuesday -- the day he's supposed to pick up the Earl's grease. So
we'd better get our butts into the car.
train, loaded up with all the lawmakers and industry representatives, starts
up. Black smoke from the train's own dirty diesel engine shoots above Plains'
downtown. Del Bueno pulls out onto Plains' main drag and begins the drive
back to smog-ridden Atlanta.