Vegetable Grease Is a Gas in Tunbridge
Todd Tyson shows workshop participants the engine temperature of his Mercedes diesel sedan while it runs on waste vegetable oil in Tunbridge yesterday. Tyson collects and filters the oil for the Tunbridge Grease Collective. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
At Todd Tyson’s Gospel of Grease Workshop, Sam Rossier, of Vershire, left, talks about his involvement in a project to convert a school bus to run on waste vegetable oil at The Sharon Academy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Sebastian Lousada, of Vershire, looks at Todd Tyson’s set-up for running his Dodge van on used vegetable oil. Lousada has made biodiesel for his family’s vehicles — which is a different process — and is thinking about switching to vegetable oil. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Tunbridge — A few minutes into his pitch about the benefits of biofuel-powered vehicles and furnaces yesterday, Todd Tyson took a moment to scold his dog, Abe, who was sneaking in a few licks of the day’s fuel supply.
No call to the veterinarian was in order — Abe was sampling used vegetable oil that Tyson has collected from area restaurants since he first converted a 1977 Mercedes Benz to run off the biofuel in 2006.
There’s been an “evolution of the grease market,” however, since the burgeoning days of biofuels in the late 1990s, said Tyson, who views the grease-powered vehicles he runs as a small contribution toward environmental sustainability.
“Using an alternative fuel that’s basically a waste product, that’s part of gearing back from maximum resource usage,” he said as he stood in front of 150 gallons of dark amber vegetable grease that he filtered himself.
While the price of used vegetable grease remains fixed at next-to-nothing, the competition for the oil has risen as biodiesel manufacturers increasingly convert the grease into commercial fuel.
Tyson, who runs the Tunbridge Grease Collective, isn’t a businessman. He said he’s “more on the socialist end of things.”
For the collective, Tyson filters up to 2,000 gallons of vegetable grease a year for home heating or fueling up grease-powered vehicles.
If a member of the collective donates the grease, they receive half of the refined fuel back. He sells the fuel for $1 a gallon, less than a third of a gallon of gas.
The “grease market,” he said, continues to evolve.
“It’s possible I may go up to a buck-fifty sometime in the future,” Tyson said.
The future for vegetable grease-powered vehicles in the Upper Valley could be brighter than one might think.
When Tyson lifted the lid off the barrel he uses to filter the vegetable oil, 18-year-old Sam Rossier leaned over the edge and took in a long whiff, before smiling and letting out a satisfied sigh at the smell, which brings to mind the scent of a warming skillet.
Rossier, a recent graduate of The Sharon Academy, has been lobbying on behalf of the school’s “BioBus” program. Rossier said that The Sharon Academy has struggled to find transportation to shuttle athletic teams to and from events, and a bus running on vegetable oil could substantially lower the operating cost.
Just one problem: A clause in Vermont state motor vehicle laws prohibits school buses with auxiliary fuel tanks.
Rossier — who recently met with state representatives Sarah Buxton, D-South Royalton, and Jim Masland, D-Thetford, to discuss the issue — is in the process of launching a pilot program that would, pending an exemption to state law, test a vegetable oil-powered school buses.
“We’ll run that and see how that goes before we actually try to change a law,” he said. “So I’ve got to get back on the horn now and talk to our representatives, and make sure that the bill did indeed get written up, so it can go through the legislative session in January.”
If the pilot project is approved, Rossier said, a modified bus could hit the streets of the Upper Valley by spring.
Attendees at the workshop — which was sponsored by Solarfest, a Vermont-based sustainable energy nonprofit — also heard from Sebastian Lousada, a Vershire resident who describes himself as living “off the grid.” Lousada buys vegetable-grease from Tyson, and he converts himself into biodiesel, using a system he bought on the Internet for $300 .
“It’s a little bit of a problem,” Lousada said, “Because our son likes to drive a lot, and suddenly there’s this big barrel of essentially free fuel, so that’s become an issue.”
Tyson is negotating a barter with a maple syrup producer.
“Talk about keeping it local, how about grease for syrup?” he said.
The bottom line circles around the ethos of Solarfest, and the ethos of Vermont itself, said Tyson, “Figure it out yourself.”
“Sometimes, waiting around for government or for corporations to give you the clean, easy answer, is not always the best alternative,” he said, using Rossier’s efforts with state lawmakers as an example.
Rick and Jan Sayles, who live in Hanover, drove to the workshop after hearing about it from Tyson, a friend.
“We’ve always been curious about it, so we wanted to see it in action,” said Jan Sayles.
As for whether they are ready to take the plunge and convert a vehicle, Rick Sayles said, “Probably not.”
Jan Sayles agreed, “There’s a lot to it.”
But another participant was more optimistic. Cheryl Heater, a church minister from White River Junction, bought her diesel-powered Mercedes Benz in 2010.
She said she was researching alternative fuels to heat her home with online when she started reading about grease-powered vehicles, and she purchased the Mercedes two years ago with the intention to convert it.
The conversion project, however, remains “a couple years down the road.”
“Maybe after some major work around the house,” Heater said, who is interested in grease-powered vehicles for reasons both environmental and economic.
“Obviously, it’s trying to live greener,” she said. “But when you do that, you save some money too.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.