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COLUMN ONE

Fuel that's off the grid

A former rock band member is riding a new wave of sustainable, cleaner energy as Atlanta's first retailer of locally made biodiesel.

October 01, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — For years in this car-clogged city, the easiest way to score a tank of biodiesel -- that much-hyped fuel of the future -- involved seeking out a guy named Rob Del Bueno.

Del Bueno is not an engineer or a gas station owner, but a former member of a sci-fi surf rock band called Man or Astro-man? He played bass, and spent most of the 1990s telling people he was from outer space.

Del Bueno also built the group's kitschy stage props: the high-voltage circuit known as a Tesla coil, which threw off mad-scientist bolts of electricity; the homemade theremin, the electronic instrument that lent a spooky vibe to countless B-movie soundtracks.

A few years ago, with the band on hiatus, Del Bueno developed another passion: brewing up pure biodiesel from used kitchen oil. He couldn't believe that fuel -- the source of so much war and worry -- could be so easily produced from an ingredient available in the back of a fast-food restaurant.

Drivers, he learned, could pump pure biodiesel into unmodified diesel engines and enjoy low greenhouse gas emissions. So Del Bueno began making it -- lots of it -- in an old water heater in his yard. He put his number on the Web. When customers called, he would meet them for a fill-up in his driveway.

"It was sort of like a drug deal," he says now, laughing.

Like a number of small biodiesel producers around the country, however, Del Bueno is now pushing his product a little closer to the mainstream. Last month, he and a nonprofit, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, unveiled the first biodiesel retail station within Atlanta city limits. The contraption, which Del Bueno built himself, is simple enough: It's a 1,100-gallon tank in a shipping container outfitted with a credit-card reader and a pump. Del Bueno stocks the tank with fuel he makes at a tiny plant he built south of town.

Buying pure biodiesel, or something very close to it, has suddenly become a lot less weird here, as it has in a number of other American cities, including Berkeley, Portland, Austin and Los Angeles, where a local biodiesel advocacy group persuaded three gas stations to carry a 99% biodiesel blend. Yet pure biodiesel remains outsider stuff: Most car makers suggest biodiesel only be used in blends of up to 20% with regular diesel fuel.

In many cases, the fuel at these pumps is supplied by earth-friendly co-ops and idealist-entrepreneurs who started out, like Del Bueno, as moonshiners. They know their growth potential is limited: Though much of America's commercial truck fleet runs on diesel, there are fewer than 5 million diesel cars, pickups and SUVs on the road. But they also believe they are fighting for the soul of the growing biofuels movement.

In an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil, the Bush administration has spent millions of dollars to spur production of biodiesel and ethanol. But as more big businesses get involved, activists worry biofuels will be produced in a way that ends up having a negligible, if not harmful, effect on the environment.

"If you are bringing in [raw materials] from many miles away, and you're spending a significant amount of energy -- and possibly petroleum-based energy -- to make a renewable fuel, how renewable is that?" said Rachel Burton, president of North Carolina-based Piedmont Biofuels.

So, taking a cue from the organic and slow-food movements, many of the little guys have begun promoting their product as sustainable biodiesel. They believe some drivers will insist on using fuel whose raw materials have been harvested locally and responsibly. Piedmont, for example, produces 75,000 gallons of biodiesel a month -- using local soybean oil, restaurant oil and chicken grease -- and sells it to the 500 members of its co-op.

"It's kind of like locally made beer," Del Bueno says. "You can always buy Budweiser cheaper. But people will pay $5 a pint for the local beer if it's any good."

The emerging world of boutique biodiesel can seem oddly familiar to a veteran of the indie rock scene. There is the fight-the-big-guys storyline, the sense of mission, the fetishization of locally made product.

Del Bueno, 35, has been forced to play catch-up on the science. But he knows something about maximizing customers in a niche market.

You learn that kind of thing in a surf rock band that purports to be from outer space.

Del Bueno's driveway smells like a bottle of Wesson oil that's been left in a hot cabinet for years. "Does it?" he asks. "I guess I've kind of gotten used to it."

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