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May 2006
Grease Power!
The Satya Interview with Brent “Arrow” Baker

 

Photo by Junko Otsuki

In 1995, after spending most of his money traveling across the country as a fire-eater with a politically-oriented traveling circus, Brent “Arrow” Baker was introduced to Sarah Lewison, who had just completed the first cross-country trip in a biodiesel-fueled cargo van. Ever since, he has made it his mission to educate people about this renewable fuel. Since 2003, Arrow has spread the word on alternative forms of energy by driving a 35-foot school bus that runs on vegetable oil and solar power around the country.

Utilizing his environmental and social justice activism, Baker recently founded Tri-State Biodiesel, an enterprise aimed at transforming NYC’s restaurant grease into renewable energy. With hundreds of restaurants signed up for their free pick-up service and plans in the works for a plant to convert the waste into biodiesel, Tri-State Biodiesel will be offering renewable fuel to New York’s truck and bus fleets and distributing it as heating oil, by the end of the year.

Catherine Clyne
had a chance to talk with Brent “Arrow” Baker about activism, grease and the rosy future of biodiesel.

I understand part of the plan is to set up a biodiesel plant here in Brooklyn. What’s the story with that?
That’s right. We’re also looking at sites in the South Bronx, but our preference is to be in Brooklyn—the Red Hook Navy yard area. That’s the closest area to a lot of our restaurants, feedstock and our end-users. Part of our plan is to try to minimize the amount of transportation required in the collection and production of biodiesel.

When you say ‘end-users,’ primarily who will be your clients?
Right now we’re talking to a number of parties, including local diesel and biodiesel distributors, national distributors, fleet managers and people that manage buildings for heating oil. We’re exploring several ways of getting the fuel out there.

Is there going to be a pump that people can drive up to and fill ’er up?
That’s not really the fundamental focus. Private owners of diesel vehicles comprise a small amount of actual diesel usage. The majority of diesel fuel is used on a commercial basis or as heating oil. So you concentrate on getting it to fleets, rather than getting it to a pump.

That said, we are committed to establishing a pump either at an existing station or at a proposed alternative fuel station another group is working on.

What are some of the benefits of producing and using biodiesel in an urban area?
One great advantage of biodiesel fuel is that it is much less carcinogenic and less toxic than diesel fuel exhaust. Part of our mission is to try to concentrate the sales of our fuel in the most emissions-distressed areas of our city, so that we can maximize the emissions health benefits where they’re needed most.

Speaking of emissions-distressed areas, the South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy Study recently released findings from a study done with NYU about there being a 17 percent asthma rate among children in the South Bronx, twice the city average and three times the national average.

That’s right. There’s very high asthma rates in the South Bronx, Sunset Park and some of our other industrial areas, neighborhoods with rates as high as one in four kids. I don’t think the answer is getting rid of industry, but cleaning it up. And Tri-State Biodiesel really hopes to be a part of that effort.

How do you pitch this idea to prospective partners and restaurants?
This is a new industry that has the potential to clean up the air quality in our city and make our life better. In order for it to be successful, we need the partnership of mom and pop and chain restaurants. We have several hundred signed up with our waste collection service and are extremely committed to providing them with the best, most professional service they’ve ever experienced. We offer to pick up their grease free of charge because we are able to add value to what is otherwise a waste product.

Why do you think biodiesel is not more widely available today?
Actually, I’m really excited about how quickly this has gone from an experimental idea in a couple of universities, to a grassroots movement, and now to an industry that’s tripled its capacity over the last year and will probably triple again in the next year.

This is an idea whose time has come. It’s the best alternative fuel that’s available today. I don’t mean to dodge your question, I just don’t agree with the premise at all. I’ve been promoting biodiesel for 10 years. For the first eight, I seldom talked to anyone who had heard of such a crazy idea. In the last two or three years, that’s changed completely. Now I seldom speak to someone about biodiesel who hasn’t heard of it. So we’ve seen a real explosion in consciousness. It’s been led by energized environmental and farmers’ movements that came together from left and right to do the right thing.

Can you tell me a little more about the farmers’ movement?
The biodiesel industry has basically been driven by American soy bean farmers—the majority of biodiesel produced in America is produced from virgin soy bean oil. The farmers have really been a central catalyst creating successful lobby groups and creating the National Biodiesel Board, the industry’s trade organization which promotes biodiesel and gets the consciousness and political awareness out there. So it’s been a very interesting progression of two sort of different approaches that have been complimentary.

Some people have the misunderstanding that biodiesel involves cooking and adapting their engines to run on it. Is that still the case?
There’s a lot of confusion around the difference between biodiesel and straight vegetable oil. Burning vegetable oil that hasn’t been altered requires alteration to the vehicle; whereas biodiesel has been chemically altered so that the diesel vehicle does not need to be altered. That’s the basic distinction.

So buses, trucks and diesel engine users could just pull up to the pump and use biodiesel without altering their vehicle?
That is correct. If you have a diesel vehicle, you can drive up, put biodiesel in, and drive away.

Do you see any conflicts in being both an activist and a business person?
[Laughs.] Of course there can be conflict between being an entrepreneur and an activist. But I don’t think that has to be the case, and I’ve been lucky enough to find an area of entrepreneurship that can be complimented by activism. I’ve found a way to walk the line. It’s important for activists to look at entrepreneurship as a means for implementing ideas that have come out of the activist community. There is a lot of opportunity right now to create renewable energy projects that can actually be both profitable and have a positive social impact. That’s the key—for those two things to go hand in hand.

Case in point. What would happen to the restaurant grease normally if it weren’t picked up for conversion into biodiesel in the future?
The restaurants are legally bound to dispose of their grease with a licensed waste removal carrier of which there are several in the New York area. They generally sell it to the pet food or the chemical industries as glycerin. It is used as a supplement in animal feed or as a component in things like shampoos and hand lotions. We’ve seen from our research that a fair amount of restaurants are actually just discarding the stuff and it is going into landfills, becoming a problem for waste treatment or landfill facilities. We’re trying to take this waste and fully utilize it in a way that’s beneficial for the environment.

Do you have some statistics on how biodiesel is good for the environment, as opposed to fossil fuels?
There is no new carbon created in its production or manufacturing. The big driver of global warming, of course, is greenhouse gases and the carbon creation that comes from digging up fossil fuels and burning them. So that’s very important. Also, with biodiesel, you have 100 percent reduction of sulfur, one of the major components of acid rain. You have almost a 70 percent reduction of hydrocarbons, 50 percent reduction of carbon monoxide, over 50 percent reduction of fine particulate matter, and almost 78 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. So this is much, much better for the environment than petroleum and, frankly, there’s no other alternative fuel that comes close to those kinds of emissions reductions. It’s something that can be implemented today with the existing infrastructure and existing engines, but provides a big step forward towards sustainability and renewability. Of course there’s no magic bullet, no single thing that’s going to save us from global warming or create a sustainable society. But biodiesel is a great way to get a little closer. We’re advocating that as well as conservation, more efficient vehicles, mass transit, and continued development of other alternative fuels and energy sources.

So this time next year, if I’m walking around Red Hook or the South Bronx—wherever the production plant is—what am I going to be smelling?
Cleaner air. The emissions out the tailpipe are sometimes compared to a light popcorn aroma.

Anything you’d like to add?
I think we’re in a period of a real resurgence of practical applications of ecology. It’s not just biodiesel—there are people putting in living roofs, solar power and wind power companies. I’m really looking forward to a green New York City in the next decade that’s going to be an example of an ecological city for the world.

To learn more, visit www.tristatebiodiesel.com.

 

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