CSUN geography professor Dr. Steve Graves often lectures on global climate change.
Now he’s putting his money where his mouth is, setting an example not just for his students, but also for his children.
“I keep thinking, ‘You’re a geography professor, you talk about global warming in class, you know it’s happening, you know it’s coming,'” Graves said.
So instead of just talking the talk, he decided to walk the walk. Or drive the drive, as the case may be.
About nine months ago, he decided to experiment with driving a car fueled by biodiesel, which is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “a renewable fuel produced from agricultural resources such as vegetable oils.”
Graves wanted to see if all the good things he had heard about biodiesel – that it’s carbon neutral, made from a renewable resource and fuel efficient – were true.
But he didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so Graves looked to craigslist, the popular online community network, for an inexpensive diesel automobile that would not need any retrofitting to use biodiesel.
He said he was hoping to find a Volkswagen because, “that’s what I’ve always owned, essentially since I was 16.”
He also knew the VW Rabbits from the 1980s got about 50 miles per gallon using regular diesel, which meant, although biodiesel is more expensive than regular gas, it would still be economical because of the fuel efficiency.
He ended up with a 1984 VW Rabbit that had nearly 300,000 miles on the odometer.
“It only cost $500,” Graves said, adding that he did have to spend some additional money on safety features and cleaning it up. “It runs very well.”
Graves drives the car on his commute to CSUN from West Hills and also drives it locally.
He swears the bunny runs better on vegetable oil than it did on petroleum.
“It’s got a lot more pick-up and it starts better,” Graves said. “Diesels are kind of known for being a little underpowered, but not this. It will go.”
Graves said he fills up about once a month. To do so, he simply pulls into his very own garage.
There are only a few biodiesel fueling stations in the Southland and none in the San Fernando Valley. At first, Graves said, he used to drive over to the Palisades or Santa Monica to fill up.
“But then I found there was a company in Woodland Hills who would deliver it to my house,” he said. “So I got a 55-gallon drum,” through craigslist, naturally, “and called this company and this truck came out and filled it up. I bought a little hand pump for it and now I have my gas station in the garage. It’s vegetable oil, so it’s not as if it’s something that’s flammable and dangerous.”
Standard Bio Diesel in Woodland Hills, the company that supplies Graves with his fuel, offers three types of biodiesel, said CEO Vojislav Mikulic.
“One is B99.9, which is 99.9 percent biodiesel and .01 percent petroleum diesel,” Mikulic. “Then there is B20-Clear which is 20 percent biodiesel blended with 80 percent petroleum. And B20-Red which is used for generators and off-road equipment.”
Graves uses B99.9. He said the petroleum diesel additive is necessary to keep the vegetable oil from getting too gummy. Cars that run on 100 percent biodiesel must be equipped with a fuel heater.
Presently, Standard Bio Diesel distributes only virgin soybean oil.
“It’s made in the Midwest, then shipped out here to San Pedro where we pick it up,” said Mikulic. “Then we distribute it with our trucks.”
The price for biodiesel is about the same price as petroleum diesel, and recently a local station was charging $3.49 per gallon for diesel while regular unleaded gasoline was $2.99.
So far, the only negative aspect of the experiment is the fact that his vehicle is, as Graves put it, “a crappy old car.” He knows that it’s not the best advertisement for the benefits of biodiesel here in image-conscious Southern California.
“Maybe I’ll bite the bullet and sell my $500 Rabbit and buy one of these Volkswagen TDI (Turbo Diesel) Golfs or Beetles, but the state of California has made it very difficult to buy new diesel vehicles,” said Graves.
Currently, there is some argument about whether emissions from diesel engines are worse for the environment than those that burn gasoline.
According to the EPA, the only emission concern is that some studies have shown that biodiesel may emit slightly more nitrogen oxide (for B100 it’s about 10 percent more than gasoline) while other studies have shown it to emit less.
However, the EPA website also states that B100 biodiesel can reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent and also reduce emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and sulfates, as well as hydrocarbon and air toxic emissions.
A 2006 BusinessWeek article stated that in Europe nearly 50 percent of new cars sold are diesel.
Dr. Warren Bland, a fellow CSUN geography professor and an expert on alternative fuels, said that’s because “diesel engines are inherently more fuel efficient compared to gas engines.”
We’ve all been behind a petroleum diesel-powered vehicle belching noxious fumes. That’s not the case with Graves’ Rabbit according to Bland, who noted that the Rabbit emits only a pleasing odor akin to French fries when it cruises by.
With the auto experiment yielding such pleasing results, Graves continues his quest for carbon neutrality.
In that vein, he recently had solar panels installed on his house and says he now has zero electricity bills.
“I’m not doing it to be a cheapskate,” said Graves. “I’m not doing it to save money. For me, it is first about my opposition to the war and secondly, it’s carbon-neutral.”
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