Two years ago, my husband David and I decided that we needed to make a concerted effort to live as green a lifestyle as possible. Being avid surfers, we have seen first hand how pollution and a non-sustainable world are affecting the environment and our health.
So it made sense that when our trusty van gave out after one too many surf trips to Baja that we would try and find the greenest vehicle we could purchase. Given the amount of gear we usually travel with, and the requirement that we had to be able to sleep in our vehicle, we decided we needed another van. But what to buy?
Since there is no hybrid van currently being made, and hybrids still rely on petroleum for most of their power, we decided to look into a vehicle that could run on plant-based fuels. This solution also had the added bonus of not supporting the oil industry, or the wars being waged to protect our sources. Hence the purchase of a used 2002 Dodge Sprinter, which spent its former life as a dry cleaning delivery truck in Reno.
Let me stop here and say that my husband and I fully realize that bio-diesel has its own set of environmental problems. We know biod is not the answer to replacing dinofuel, but rather we feel it’s the best alternative at this time until a truly environmentally friendly solution is found.
Turning our regular diesel Sprinter into a biod machine was easy. We simply joined the San Francisco Biodiesel Co-op, drove down to their fueling station South of Market, and began pumping. Since our van was relatively new, we didn’t need to retrofit hoses and rubber parts as you sometimes have to in older diesel vehicles. We were warned that our fuel filter might clog after a few thousand miles so we kept one handy in our toolbox.
It was simple to locate biod in the Bay Area. There are more than a dozen fueling stations, and apart from having to be conscious of their fueling hours, it was easy to fuel up when we needed it.
Going on a road trip was a different matter. Spending several hours on the internet, Dave and I created a list of all the biod fueling locations we could find. It was clear there would be certain areas where it would be very challenging to find biod, if at all. While we were fortunate to have a large tank, and get an amazing 32 mpg on the highway, we still would be running on fumes if we fueled up in San Francisco and drove to LA via Highway Five, where it appeared there were no biod stations on the entire 353 mile stretch. There were rumors of biod being sold at truck stops, but nothing concrete. So how can you take the quintessential California Road Trip if you can’t find fuel?
Dave and I were discovering that it’s easy being green in the Bay Area, but we wondered if owning a biodiesel vehicle and traveling outside the area was really practical. I mentioned this problem to my colleague on Quest, Andrea Kissack, and she was game to join me in finding out.
Half way down Highway Five and a half dozen truck stop stops later Andrea and I realize the rumor of biod at truck stops in California is just that: a rumor. We met Roland the Trucker at one stop, who said he runs biod only in the Midwest because he can’t find it here. Can it really be true that a state with a reputation of being the greenest in the country doesn’t sell biod along its major highways, but it’s available in the much maligned red states? It broke my liberal leaning, California born heart.
After following two more leads at Grapevine truckstops, Andrea and I give up and pray to the biod gods that we’ll make it to LA. The gauge is inching closer to E, and by the time I pull into Andrea’s Silver Lake destination, my little red light has come on, telling me I better figure out something quick or we’ll be pushing the van back to San Francisco.
Not to worry, I think. One of LA’s biod stations is mere blocks from where Andrea is staying. The next morning we head over there, the van so low that it chugs a few times heading up a small hill. We pull in front of the address I have on my list, but there is no pump to be seen. I go inside the office and am told that my list is wrong, and that the company only converts cars to run on veggie oil. A biod place is a few miles away, but it won’t be open until Thursday. It is now Monday.
Swearing under my breath like a sailor on leave, I march back to the van and inform Andrea. She makes me redo my comments for the Quest radio piece minus the colorful language, and then, having no choice, I sheepishly point the van in the direction of a regular diesel gas station a few miles away and put just enough fuel to get us to Santa Barbara, where I know there is an open biod station. I stew about the decision all the way up the coast, feeling horrible that I had to put dinofuel in my van. I knew I should have listened to the SF BioD folks at my orientation and bought a “carboy”; a portable carrying case filled with biod that many users keep in their car for just this sort of situation.
Highway 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco offers at least a few opportunities to fuel up with biod. You can find the fuel nearly every county the highway runs through, and sometimes you even have a few options. You still have to worry about being there when the fueling stop is open, and Sundays and evenings are sometimes difficult, but all in all, it’s a much less stressful trip.
After fueling up in both Santa Barbara and again in Ben Lomond we drive to KQED with plenty of biod to spare. While I am still very happy to own a biodiesel vehicle, it doesn’t come without some added stress and headaches – both which I’m willing to endure in my quest to try and lessen my impact on the earth. I feel somewhat like a pioneer, paving the way for what I hope will be a cleaner, more green world in the future.
To see & discuss all the photos from Andrea and Elizabeth’s Biod Road Trip go to the Biodiesel Road Trip – KQED QUEST Set on Flickr.
Elizabeth Pepin is an Associate Producer on QUEST for KQED-TV.