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Taos, New Mexico Runs Its Machinery With Used Vegetable Oil

Sat February 19, 2005 - West Edition
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TAOS, NM (AP) Waste vegetable oil generated by some Taos restaurants has found its way into the fuel tanks of a town bus, a construction company’s vehicles, generators and even a boiler.

More than 20 Taos area restaurants are supplying their waste vegetable oil to a local company that turns it into a fuel for diesel-powered engines. The fuel can be used in most diesel engines without retrofitting them.

The first engines to run on diesel fuel were powered by peanut oil and were unveiled at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris.

Recycled vegetable oil has powered a Taos bus for several months, and Mayor Bobby Duran said you can’t tell the difference except for the smell.

“It doesn’t smell like diesel. It smells like French fries,” Duran said.

While only one of the town’s Chili Line buses is running on the alternative fuel, the town could expand that to its entire bus fleet and to other town vehicles if the pilot program works out, Duran said.

The fuel is environmentally friendly, burning cleaner than regular diesel fuel and it recycles used vegetable oil that is typically thrown away, said Jonah Reynolds, founder and director of Earthship BioDiesel. Reynolds said the fuel is also better for diesel-powered engines.

Earthship BioDiesel is the only company in Taos that produces biodiesel. It has about 25 customers –– a mix of private individuals and companies.

The company, founded in August, can produce about 4,000 gallons of fuel a day, but it doesn’t have a fueling station yet, Reynolds said.

Daniel Weinman, owner of Paradise Power in Taos, is using the biodiesel in two of his company vehicles. He said he gets slightly better mileage with the new fuel. But he said his company, which specializes in solar and alternative electrical system design and installation, uses the product for environmental reasons.

The benefits aren’t without a price tag, however. The fuel costs about $3.25 a gallon, about $1 more than conventional diesel. Reynolds said the company’s goal is to get the price down to $2.20 or lower by this summer through higher production.

Reynolds said the product is taking off, and Earthship BioDiesel plans on building a fueling station this summer. The company makes daily fuel deliveries to customers.

The company also plans to build a 2 million gallon a year refinery. That, he said, would likely generate enough biodiesel to export some outside of Taos.

Reynolds said he founded Earthship BioDiesel because of the state of the environment, rising fuel costs “and just thinking globally, acting locally.”

While his customers would no doubt prefer to pay less for the fuel, they appreciate the fact that it’s made by locals and that it’s better for the environment, he said.

“Also, they know that they’re doing a good thing for their vehicle,” he said. “It’ll last longer.”

During cold months, the fuel is blended with traditional diesel to prevent jelling. But when it’s warm enough, a motorist can use 100 percent biodiesel.

Restaurant owner Marco Barbitta is more than happy to hand over his used vegetable oil to the company. Recycling the used oil is good for the environment, and it keeps the country from having to import so much foreign oil, said Barbitta, who owns Downtown Bistro in Taos.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I don’t have to pay somebody to pick it up.”

Reynolds said he doesn’t pay restaurants for their vegetable oil. But, he added, that, before his company started collecting the oil, restaurants were forced to pay others to haul it away.

According to Reynolds, 60 million gallons of biodiesel was produced in the United States in 2004. In Europe, he said, more than 6 billion gallons of biodiesel was sold last year.

The BioFinery in Taos is the only one of its kind in the country, Reynolds said, explaining that it relies entirely on solar and wind power for processing.