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Credit: Peter Holst

A close-knit Vancouver community tests the limits of alternative-fuel cars


When Damian Kettlewell bought his diesel Mercedes on eBay, his vision was to create a grease-car running on 100-per-cent discarded French fry grease. Within weeks of the July 2004 online purchase, Kettlewell had completed the $1,800 conversion (including labour), and with this bold act of innovation, fired Esso, Chevron, Shell and Husky Oil.

“I hate going to gas stations,” says Kettlewell, a 35-year-old entrepreneur and environmental activist. “I’ve seen the political and environmental footprint of the oil and gas business, and it’s not something I want to support.”

Since 2004, he has invested in a Burnaby pub with a full kitchen and deep fryer, which for him is a move akin to buying his own gas station. Kettlewell can regularly be seen backing into the Great Bear Pub, which supplies 100 per cent of his fuel needs.

“I run the waste oil through a coffee filter to catch sediment, let it sit for two weeks to settle, and pour it in my tank,” he explains.

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Kettlewell is an ambassador of sorts, one of a very small group of Vancouver pioneers – an “early adopter” in marketing-speak – who is not waiting for industry to take the lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation. A member of the Green Party of B.C., Kettlewell took on Premier Gordon Campbell in the 2005 election in Vancouver’s Point Grey riding, collecting a respectable 4,000 votes for the Green Party, compared to 12,500 votes for Campbell. Leading by example, he is part of a close-knit community of self-professed alternative-fuel geeks, pushing the boundaries of what government and industry consider feasible.

As an organizer of and participant in clean-air automotive shows in Greater Vancouver, Kettlewell offers to take me for a grease-fuelled ride around town, introducing me to his network.

With a press of his accelerator, the peppy station wagon takes off southward down Commercial Drive, not in a cloud of fine particulate matter, but with a whiff of poutine topped with industrial strength gravy. Minutes after we climb aboard the grease car, a man in a convertible Miata passes on the left, flashing an approving thumbs up.

“That happens a lot,” Kettlewell says with a laugh, explaining that he gets extra attention from the bumper sticker above his licence plate that reads, “Waste Veggie Oil Car – GHG Neutral.”

The grease car is not completely benign; it still emits greenhouse gases into the air, but the cumulative “cradle to grave” emissions, from the planting and harvest of the vegetable seed, to its burning in his tank, is much lower.

Our destination this sunny September morning is Recycling Alternative, a small private recycling business in the industrial district east of Main and Terminal. It is here that Louise Schwarz and Robert Weatherbe run a fleet of eight recycling trucks on 100 percent biodiesel, as well as a co-operative biodiesel “gas station” serving about 100 members.

“Biodiesel” is not to be confused with the pure vegetable oil that Kettlewell uses straight out of the fryer. Biodiesel is a renewable fuel derived from vegetable oils (e.g., soybean) or animal fats, and manufactured using a chemical process to remove glycerine from the oil. While Kettlewell’s grease car required a custom-made 74-litre tank, a new heater, filter and custom fuel lines, biodiesel can be burned by any mass-produced car or truck designed to run on petroleum diesel. The driver of any diesel car can go to any gas station and use plain petroleum diesel if they want or need to, yet at next fill-up can use a blend of petro and biodiesel, depending on what is available. Biodiesel can be mixed with petroleum-derived diesel in any proportion, typically ranging from five-per-cent biodiesel (called B5) to 100-per-cent biodiesel (called B100).

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average biodiesel emissions are impressive compared to petro diesel: a vehicle running B100 produces 67 per cent fewer unburned hydrocarbons, 48 per cent less carbon monoxide, 47 per cent less particulate matter, and 100 per cent fewer sulphates. (For vehicles burning B20, the numbers are 20 per cent, 12 per cent, 12 per cent and 20 per cent respectively).

But despite these obvious benefits, the use of biodiesel as automotive fuel is still in early infancy across Greater Vancouver and Canada, compared to the U.S. and especially Europe. Today there are only four retail “stations” in Greater Vancouver (one in North Vancouver, two in Burnaby and one in Delta), and the biodiesel co-operative I am about to see is the only place in Vancouver that sells pure 100 per cent biodiesel to the public.
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Louise Schwarz fills up her biodiesel-
fuelled VW Beetle


Louise Schwarz emerges from the grimy recycling depot dressed in forest green and matching jewellery; she’s a whirlwind of bright red hair and freckles fuelled by unstoppable enthusiasm. She leads us to a tiny wooden shed on the periphery of the property, painted blue with gaudy yellow sunflowers. Inside is a large white plastic tank with a nozzle similar to one found at any gas station.

When co-operative members pay $100 to join, they get a key to the shed, and they must pre-purchase 100 litres of biodiesel at a time. On the day Louise is showing me around, the cost of B100 is $1.15 a litre, which is about five cents higher than petro diesel. Schwarz explains that the price does not fluctuate like gasoline or regular diesel, but is more a reflection of the quantity the co-op can buy at a given time.

Alt-Fuel Alternative:
Going Electric

Plug ‘n Play
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Unleaded Unneeded
Granville Online pits the electric car against the hummer, a hybrid, a truck and a mid-sized car.

Electric Cars Gain Traction
Burnaby joins Vancouver in giving the nod to zero-emission vehicles


The co-operative started in 2005 after Recycling Alternative switched its fleet to biodiesel to reduce the environmental impact of its operations. After looking at electric vehicles as an option for their business, Schwarz and Weatherbe chose biodiesel. For a period, they experimented with making it themselves, but today they import it from Idaho.

As if it wasn’t hard enough to set up a biodiesel gas station on your own, Schwarz and her partner have had to grapple with the politics of biodiesel, including widespread criticism of the appropriation of farmland and forests to grow genetically modified corn, canola and other crops for biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. (The latter is an alcohol-based fuel made from such crops as corn and wheat, and added to gasoline in the same way biodiesel is added to diesel.)

Schwarz says that when it comes to biodiesel, a distinction must be made between virgin and recycled feedstock, and that the co-operative tries to source its B100 from such recycled feedstock as rendering-plant waste.

The ecological implication of using virgin versus recycled feedstock is less of an issue when I talk with Curtis Mearns, general manager of Delta-based Cascadia Biofuels Inc., yet another member of Kettlewell’s network.

Cascadia, a joint venture between two petroleum distribution companies, currently distributes more than two billion litres of biodiesel across Western Canada each year. The company operates seven retail fuel stations (called “bio-pumps”) stretching from Whistler to Penticton, along a stretch of highway Mearns likes to call the “low-carbon highway,” in joking reference to Premier Gordon Campbell’s much-hyped 2010 “hydrogen highway.”

“While hydrogen may be here later, biodiesel is here now,” says Mearns. “Biodiesel is available, it is better for clean air, vehicle performance and climate change, and it is also cheaper, so all the dynamics are looking up.”

Eighty per cent of Cascadia’s retail customers are commercial trucks (mostly big rigs), and the remaining 20 per cent are diesel passenger cars. For its commercial customers, the incentive to use biodiesel is purely economic: on the day we talk, B5 is half a cent cheaper than pure petro diesel, and B40 is three cents cheaper. Regarding his other customers, Mearns states with some irony that “guys in Jettas and Smart cars drive all the way across town to get it.”

Government policy is the key to moving biodiesel into the mainstream, yet Mearns says this will be a challenge, given the conflicting signals being sent to industry and consumers from government. He cites the 2007 March federal budget specifically, which repealed the existing excise tax exemption (worth $0.04 a litre) for biodiesel after April 1, 2008. Yet in the B.C. provincial government’s February 2007 Energy Plan, the province committed to implementing a five-per-cent-average renewable fuel standard for diesel by 2010, meaning that a total of five per cent of all the diesel sold across the province will be biodiesel. (The announcement included increasing the ethanol content of gasoline to five per cent by 2010 as well.)

While this appears to represent a boon for B.C. use of biodiesel in the near future, the scarcity of diesel-burning vehicles on our streets could limit the future adoption of biodiesel. ICBC estimates that just 2,100 diesel passenger vehicles were insured in Vancouver at the end of 2006, out of a total of nearly 260,000 passenger vehicles.

The reality is, most biodiesel early adopters today will have to burn petroleum diesel to some extent, based on the lack of availability of biodiesel at present. The benefits of driving a diesel are murky at best: a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists weighing the pros and cons of gasoline versus diesel vehicles concluded that gas burners are more cost-effective than diesel for reducing oil use and lowering global warming pollution.

Scarcity of diesel passenger cars is another challenge. Drivers considering buying a diesel vehicle to run biodiesel, or considering converting a diesel car to burn vegetable oil must choose from a limited number of manufacturers and models, including certain makes of Volvo, Mercedes, Ford (trucks) and Volkswagen. (Louise Schwarz and Kettlewell’s wife both drive biodiesel-fuelled VW beetles.) The more adventurous can look online, as Kettlewell did, or go shopping across the border.

If the mess and inconvenience of fuelling your car with waste veggie oil is not accept-able, and the uncertainty of biodiesel accessibility and vehicle choice leaves you cold, you might consider the example set by Byron Sheardown, whose car has no fuel tank at all.

The 37-year-old Kitsilano resident bought a 2001 Dodge Neon this year, and hired Canadian Electric Vehicles Inc. of Errington, B.C. to remove the engine and install 14 lead acid batteries, which can be charged through a 120-volt electrical outlet (used typically by a washing machine), as well as the conventional household 110-volt outlet.

Sheardown shares the infectious positive energy of Kettlewell and Schwarz, as well as their commitment to demonstrating what is possible.

“I always want to walk the talk when it comes to being green, recycling, and other things,” says Sheardown, a sales rep for Horizon Printing in East Vancouver. “But a while back I got into a heated argument about global warming with this guy in Richmond, and he said, ‘How did you get here?’ The answer was, I had driven my Audi, and after that, I wanted to get a car that better reflected my beliefs.”

Although he no longer pays for gasoline, his e-car has its own challenges. His maximum range per charge is about 40 kilometres – a limitation that has prompted him to create his own network of 120-volt electrical outlets in strategic areas across Greater Vancouver. To date he has installed a plug at Kettlewell’s Great Bear Pub in Burnaby, and has already approached a business client about installing an outlet on its premises, at his own expense. His motivation for taking the trouble is selfless. “I want to get other people driving electric cars,” he says.

I accept the offer for a drive in Sheardown’s car, and the first thing I notice is the ghostly quiet; the only sound is the low hum of the power steering. The dashboard looks empty without the gas gauge, oil light and heat indicator. A large, slightly cartoonish red button is close to where a cigarette lighter should be, bearing the ominous words “Emergency Shut Off.”

“All of the things that go wrong in an internal combustion engine car, all the replacement parts, the plugs, belts, they are nonexistent here,” he says, accelerating without a sound. “This is more like a computer – you can continually upgrade parts without replacing the whole. The lifespan is so much longer, and the infrastructure to support it is absolutely everywhere.”

Alt-Fuel Alternative:
Going Electric

Plug ‘n Play
Vancouver welcomes electric cars, but is it too little, too late?

Unleaded Unneeded
Granville Online pits the electric car against the hummer, a hybrid, a truck and a mid-sized car.

Electric Cars Gain Traction
Burnaby joins Vancouver in giving the nod to zero-emission vehicles


But a question nags me during the drive – a vehicle running on batteries charged in a home electrical outlet is really only as “green” as the source of the electricity, right? If you charge your batteries with electricity generated by coal for example, what good is an electric vehicle?

Sheardown refers me to Jon Stonier of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (yet another link in the Kettlewell alt-fuel chain). “Take identical cars: one has an electric motor, one runs an internal combustion engine, and right off the bat, the electric will use 75 per cent less energy because of the inherent efficiencies in electric motors and the recovery of energy from regenerative braking. Because of this reduction in overall energy used, even if you source your electricity from coal-fired generators, the net greenhouse gas emissions are still less than regular gasoline cars.” Given that about 90 per cent of B.C.’s electricity is generated from hydro sources, Stonier says, electricity makes even better sense in this province.

Back at his office after our test drive, Sheardown shares his plans for his next electric vehicle, which he hopes to buy further down the road. It will be a big sport utility vehicle, he says, capable of carrying enough batteries to vastly expand the limited range of his e-Neon.

“I want to have a big custom bumper sticker on the back that says ‘This SUV Doesn’t Suck.’”