Notes from the Road

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Join bioenergy specialists Suzanne Hunt (Worldwatch) and Jean-Philippe Denruyter (WWF) on a 4,500 mile (~7,200 km) bioenergy adventure from Washington DC, USA to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in under 4 weeks. - Greaseball Challenge 2007!
The rules are:

  • Teams must find a diesel vehicle on a shoestring budget – resourcefulness, mechanical ingenuity and Ebay come in handy.
  • Teams are on their own – unsupported for the duration of the rally.
  • All vehicles are donated in the destination countries to benefit local environmental projects.

The teams will visit a number of bioenergy projects along the way. Suzanne and Jean-Philippe will be writing case studies on the projects and will share their first impressions on this blog.

General Observations/Key Conclusions - Suzanne

A key piece of information to know is that it is not yet legal to sell biofuels in these countries (disclaimer: we learned very little about the situation in Mexico since we were unfortunately there during Easter week). There are draft laws in the works in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica that would create regulations for the sale of biofuels domestically. These industries are at a completely infant stage.

Biodiesel

With biodiesel production, the focus in most places seems to be production for domestic use. There is now some production by large companies for use in their fleets and some small scale production, again for use by the producers: The farmers told us that SVO and biodiesel will be especially useful for non-transport applications, in particular, for generators and micro grids to provide electricity in their communities.

Safety

This is a topic that is generally not given sufficient attention. When methanol and lye are mixed together (as is standard in biodiesel production), methoxide is formed. Breathing in methoxide leads to loss of sight. I’ve seen cases where people aren’t careful and gradually lose their sight. Extreme caution, sealed production equipment, good ventilation, and ideally secondary containment systems should be used.

Appropriate Technology

If I hadn’t gone on this trip I never would have given much thought to using straight vegetable oil (or animal fat). However, putting “grease” systems into old diesel vehicles is a perfect example of an appropriate technology. It’s actually low tech, it’s inexpensive, the parts needed are widely available as well as waste grease, and it makes clean fuel much more accessible because it eliminates the need for all of the cost, complexity (procurement of methanol and lye, training in chemistry, etc.), danger (toxic chemical handling) involved in making biodiesel. Also, it gives you two fuel systems in your vehicle. (This came in really handy at several points on this trip, for example when I was driving up the steep hills just outside of San Jose, Costa Rica and my diesel filter clogged, I drove on grease until I could replace the diesel filter.)

Public Knowledge and Education

As could be expected, there was a mix of knowledge levels regarding biofuels – some people knew quite a lot and others had never heard of biofuels. In southern Honduras, for instance, while we were trying to find the right sized bolt with fine threads (we found the right size wrong thread, and the right thread wrong size) to keep our left back wheel from falling off, we chatted with some young guys who told us that biodiesel was being produced nearby from palm oil. I asked if he and their friends used it in their cars and he said “no, the engines need adjustments,” but they didn’t know what kind of adjustments were needed.

Any national biofuel initiative will require public education on a number of levels.

Summary

Initially it will make most sense to encourage biofuel production from wastes, for vehicle fleets, and for power generation (disclaimer: we were not able to investigate cooking and other household applications).

Biodiesel and straight grease make the most sense initially for a number of reasons. In the case of biodiesel, it can be blended at any proportion with fossil diesel and it is generally compatible with existing transport infrastructure as well as with diesel electric generation equipment (only minor modifications are necessary). You get dramatic air quality benefits, even at low blending levels in terms of particulate matter, sulfur, CO, and other harmful emissions (with the exception of NOx which may decrease or increase slightly depending on the feedstock used, the engine, etc.). It can also be made from a wide variety of feedstocks making the potential for a robust feedstock markets possible (from waste animal fats as we saw in Guatemala and Honduras, oil seed crops grown on unused and abandoned lands as we saw in Guatemala, etc. See “Appropriate Technology” section for an explanation of grease use.

Because the cost of the feedstock represents 60-90% of the final cost of production of biodiesel, it is critical to use the lowest cost feedstock possible and initially, this will be waste materials.

Because it takes time, training, education and investment to incorporate new fuels into any economy, it makes most sense for these governments to start by phasing sustainably produced biodiesel into government fleets. With government diesel fleets, there are central fueling stations and consistent maintenance crews, and long-term fuel contracts could be put in place to give feedstock producers the confidence to produce new crops, and sustainability criteria for producers could be enforced in purchasing arrangements.

There will have to be technical assistance, information dissemination and financing mechanisms created to foster new biofuels industries. All government support should be infused with sustainability assurances and, as much as possible, biofuel initiatives should be part of comprehensive planning efforts which incorporate energy efficiency as a key element.

Regional efforts, including information and technology sharing will be useful, but each country will need to develop strategies that address their unique policy, resource and political situations.

Goodbye Rabbit - Suzanne

Emily Yozell and Suzanne in Costa Rica

The rabbit was donated to a group called CoopeTalamancaSos (Cooperative for a Sustainable Talamanca) whose mission is to "foment a model of sustainable development in Talamanca by promoting diverse projects and economic activities to produce and distribute energy and fuel from renewable sources". Founding members of the coop include a diverse and dynamic local group of small farmers, small business owners, eco-tourism service providers, NGO leaders as well as the Municipality of Talamanca and other professionals.

The coop plans to use the rabbit for community education and hopes to initiate both low tech and high tech biofuel production in the region.

Costa Rica: The End of the Road - Suzanne

After arriving in Costa Rica we had several marathon media days, including a 6am live TV interview with JP and me on Channel 7. After the segment ended and we took off the microphones, a guy from the station handed us several notes with names and phone numbers scribbled across them. Several biodiesel producers and a member of the Costa Rican Mercedes Benz Club had called in offering fuel and any assistance we needed.

One of them was Giovanni Polonio of Central Biodiesel.


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April 27 – Central Biodiesel in Costa Rica – Suzanne

Suzanne and Giovanni Polonio


After everyone left, I risked a breakdown in San Jose to visit Central Biodiesel, a biodiesel equipment provider. Their focus is scaleable systems that can start small and be expanded incrementally. They designed an oil seed press (the cost is around $5,000 retail) that can press 200 kilos of any type of oilseed (palm, jatropha, castor, etc.) per hour. Their equipment is capable of using any type of vegetable oil or animal fat. The smallest system that they sell costs $21,000 and produces 396,000 liters per year (~104,000 gallons) and the largest produces 3,168,000 liters per year (~834,000 gallons).

After one year in business they’ve already exported their equipment to 25 different countries including the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Puerto Rico, China, and Israel. A few of the systems have been purchased by Costa Ricans, a tilapia farm for example, but there is generally a lack of feedstock. Palm oil prices are high right now. Currently about 65% of Costa Rican palm oil is used for food domestically and about 35% is exported.

For this reason and others, they are looking at the potential of Jatopha (also called “tempate” in Costa Rica) as a feedstock. Five months before we arrived they, with help from the Universidad Nacional, created a jatropha nursery in the Guanacaste Region in the town of Tempate (very fitting). As in Guatemala we saw Jatropha used around the country for living fences (instead of fence posts that decay rapidly in the tropics, live trees are used and are trimmed).

Filling the rabbit with donated biodiesel



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April 26 – Biocombustibles Biodegradables in Costa Rica – JP

wind turbines at Lago Arenal

Due to time constraints we had to rush through Nicaragua. Bad luck… In Costa Rica, however, we found some time to drive around beautiful Lago Arenal and its impressive wind turbines before reaching San Jose.

WWF Central America and the IDB had raised a lot of press interest and we spend hours in San Jose to reply to interviews, among which a live interview on Canal 7 with Suzanne and jp for the morning news. Bioenergy and grease cars are cool!

Suzanne in the studio

San Jose, final destination and also last project visit for me. After the TV interview I visited Biocombustibles Biodegradables together with my colleague from Costa Rica, Brenna Ruiz.

The project started 2.5 years ago. Eladio Madriz, a professional accountant, saw information on biodiesel on internet and thought this was a good idea. One of his customers, Orlando Ramirez, is the president of a large bus company ([http://www.coesacr.com/ Consorcio Operativo del Este) and was interested in buying the biodiesel.

Slowly the production with basic machinery went up to about 2 000 litres a day. In 2006 the small company started to produce biodiesel on an industrial scale. Now about 130 public transport buses (I used one for a ride when I was visiting the city) of the Consorcio use a 30% biodiesel blend. That’s about 300 000 litres of biodiesel per month! The bus company is willing to pay more to get cleaner energy sources. Additionally, the bus drivers reacted very positively to the change and maintenance costs have gone down.

Eladio in his office

The biodiesel plant has a capacity of 3 million litres per month. But in order to fully use the installation, the company needs more security of feedstock supply and sponsors who commit to buy the biodiesel.

Until now, Biocombustibles Biodegradables has bought feedstock such as waste cooking oil, soy oil or palm oil from restaurants and farmers. But the visionary plant owners want to diversify the raw material supply and to multiply benefits to society.

Since Costa Rica entered into free trade agreements, many small farmers lost their jobs due to decreasing prices of commodities such as rice, beans or corn. These farmers still own their land (between 2 and 25 ha) but stopped farming. The plant owners have identified 280 farmers in the poorest part of the country, who could grow higuerilla (castor oil) for a good price on 1000 hectares of land. This oil crop is known for its capacity to fix nitrogen and regenerate soils. The process could start from next year onwards. We wish them good luck!

This nice story could be linked to the discussion on tortilla prices and the NAFTA agreements in Mexico. Free trade agreements, food prices, farmers’ jobs, and bioenergy all interact. Bioenergy might improve or worsen the current situation for farmers and consumers. But like Ms Spieldoch from IATP noted, growth in biofuels (…) will not solve agricultural commodity market distortions that are associated with free trade policies and have devastating impacts on other countries. And, it will not serve as a magic bullet to address social needs such as employment, local ownership, and food security. In this case, though, it seems it might help!

Some food for thought! I’m eager to see how the Biocombustibles Biodegradables project will look like in a few years!

The trip comes to an end for me. Suzanne will donate the car. She might post something about this event on the blog. In the coming weeks we will write case studies with more information about the projects. The blog will stay alive! Thanks for staying with us.

Cheers jp


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Passing Through Nicaragua - Suzanne

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti. Driving into the country there was a stretch of dusty potholed road that was so bad that we could only go a few miles per hours. Little children ran along side the vehicles pleading for water and food. Their eyes were sad, tired - some looked almost blank. One little boy in particular stays in my memory. Looking into his dirty little face you saw a fierce anger. I wondered what all of these children would grow up to be like… harboring so much anger at a world that has literally left them in the dust.

Throughout the trip we heard a number of the usual stories of people being robbed at gunpoint. Ten years from now, will that little boy be holding a gun to my head and telling me to get out of the car?


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April 20 – Aquafinca Saint Peter Fish - JP

fishermen at aquafinca

Our last visit in Honduras is special. You might wonder why we are going to visit the world’s biggest Tilapia farm, on the shores of Lago Yojoa. Well, this 5-year old company produces biodiesel with its fish waste.

St Peter Fish is a company that attaches a lot of importance to social and environmental sustainability. It provides various types of education and health services to its employees and communities. For example, 10% of the infrastructure has been given to the local campesinos, who can exploit it for their own profit. The profit has to be invested by them in environmental and social projects for the community. The company doesn’t use medicines or antibiotics when raising fish. It would like to produce organic fish but there, the bottleneck lies with the procurement of organic feedstock. So St Peter Fish encourages farmers in the vicinity to go organic. The company is also shifting from plane transport to boat transport of the product to markets.

The biodiesel project started in August 2005. With the fish waste, St Peter Fish produces fishmeal, fish oil for feedstock, biodiesel and glycerin for soap production. Currently, it produces about 30,000 gallons of biodiesel per month. This is slightly more than the company’s own energy needs. The plant has a capacity of 4000 gallons per day, so production could be increased. The raw material that is used for biodiesel could also be used as animal feedstock but Tilapia contains no omega 3, giving it a low value on the animal feedstock market.

fish fuel station

All of St Peter Fish trucks and machinery runs on biodiesel. The only thing they have done to the vehicles is change the fuel filters often after switching to biodiesel. They have just purchased a number of new 18 wheelers that they are running on B100 so they will be able to monitor these vehicles and see how they fair with pure biodiesel over the years.

The biodiesel and fish meal installation cost about half a million US dollars and the CEO said that this investment paid for itself in a few months! Hopefully more of these projects will arise in the future!


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April 19 – palm oil projects

Early morning, Suzanne and myself head off from Copan in the direction of Tela and leave the wonderful Mayan site behind us (very sad, there was no time to visit the ruins). Close to San Pedro Sula, we meet with José Vasquez, an agronomist with WWF Honduras, and William and Carol from SNV (Netherlands Development Organization), who took us to the projects. Along the way, sugarcane, banana trees and palm trees were omnipresent.

road through palm plantation

In the car, José explained that the Honduran government is planning to increase by 100 percent the cultivation of palm for use in biodiesel production. This would require another 100 000 ha of plantations in addition to the already existing 96 000 ha. José doesn’t think that so much land is available. The palm plantations might replace other crops, such as bananas. But there is no direct danger of deforestation. The question remains whether it is desirable to replace existing crops. Honduras is also looking at other crops, such as jatropha and types of leguminous crops. But this is in the research stage. The main raw material would be palm and sugarcane. The bioenergy production would primarily be destined for national use.


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Hondupalma

hondupalma

Our first visit is to Hondupalma. This company is composed of 30 cooperatives of campesinos and exists since 1982. It produces palm oil and owns 8 000 ha of 30 year old palm plantations. The palm oil is used in Honduras and abroad. 50% of the production is exported to Central America, Venezuela and Mexico. Hondupalma is committed to the development of the region, as it is composed of local communities. It supports for example health infrastructure, education etc.

fruits from palm trees

While visiting the installations, our host shows us their biodiesel production facility. Hondupalma produces 30 000 gallons/month of biodiesel with the lower quality oil, for own use (machinery, vehicles…). It could produce more but currently the Honduran legislation doesn’t allow for the sale of biofuels. On top of this the price of palm oil is so high at the moment that biodiesel would sell at the same price as fossil diesel. During the meeting with some of Hondupalma’s board members, José explains that he’s developing a biogas project with Agrotor, another palm oil company. Palcasa, a third company, already uses its biogas installation. This is a smart way to reduce effluents and to produce energy at the same time.

After our Hondupalma visit, we head towards our new destination: the Palcasa plant.


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Palcasa

gold standard project

Similarly to Hondupalma, Palcasa processes palm fruits into CPO (crude palm oil) and PKO (palm kernel oil). It is buying the fruits from farms in the vicinity, and the processing plants needs the production of about 7 000 ha of land for its yearly output of 100 000 tonnes of oil. Palcasa doesn’t produce biodiesel yet. But it is considering of using up to 30% of its production for biodiesel. They consider that it would help them to stabilise there incomes, as the price of vegetable oil is very volatile. The company is also considering using the empty fruit bunches for energy production.

But the main reason why we are visiting Palcasa,, is that they are one of the first palm oil processors to have installed a wastewater biogas plant. Instead of pouring the wastewater into the rivers, it is collected, goes through an fermentation process where biogas is collected and then goes to ponds, where it is evaporated. Palcasa is considering the production of organic fertilisers in the near future. The gas is used to produce electricity (in the lower season about 1,2 MWh, peak about 3,6 MWh). In the future the produced heat might be used as well.

biogas capture

Palcasa receives CDM credits for the GHG emission savings, and has been accredited by the Gold Standard. A Swiss fund is buying the credits. Before it was the Canadian government. It took only 3 years to recover the expenses for the biogas plant. Now they are selling 80% of the electricity and use 20% for their own operations. This is a great project that should be replicated wherever possible!

With the great feeling that we have learned a lot today, we drive down to Lago Yojoa, a beautiful and large lake in the West of Honduras, where we will join the rest of the crew for an evening at the shores of the lake.


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April 18 – Heading to Honduras

Rabbit in front of jatropha

Leaving Guatemala City was a nightmare, after the quiet hours in Antigua. However, we managed to drive until Copan, just after the Honduran border. The van has some problems with the brakes, so it is not sure whether everybody will be able to visit the palm oil biogas projects tomorrow.

Today’s drive confirms a comment made by Ludwig yesterday. JP asked about the potential for biofuels in Guatemala to contribute to deforestation. “The deforestation is already done…” he replied. For several hundred kilometers we saw either mostly or totally denuded mountainsides. The heat was oppressive and the sun unrelenting.

Bing

As we are trying to make up time, the days are very long. But the days are very rewarding as well! Our little car is doing well, thanks to the great talents of our mechanic, Bing. The Rabbit crew (Suzanne, Bing, JP) is tired but happy. Yesterday we have filled up our tanks and all our canisters with biodiesel and grease, so we’re ready to go on.


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April 17 – Press Conference and More Visits

Press Conference in Guatemala City

The next morning, Technoserve held a press conference in Guatemala City. We were invited on the panel, together with Emily Horgan, a Greaseball Challenge Director. Bing Soohoo and Bjornar Kruse from the Norvegian NGO Zero were also there to answer questions. There was a high interest from the Guatemalan press and television.

The Vice-Minister for Energy and the Vice-Minister for Competitiveness were also on the panel, which made this all a quite high-level event. Let’s hope it the press conference will contribute to the awareness raising about bioenergy in Guatemala! At the end of the conference, we were able to fill up our tanks and canisters with biodiesel and grease at a plant belonging to the Empacadora Toledo Company.


JP smiling for the cameras




Outside the Technoserve press conference
















Empacadora Toledo Company

Biodiesel Production Equipment at Empacadora Toledo

This food company produces biodiesel for its own trucks with animal fats. They produce a maximum amount of 24 000 gallons per month, for their own use only. This not only saves greenhouse gas emissions, it also reduces the fuel costs by at least 40%. In addition, they have to pay to dispose of the animal grease, so they are saving the company money in that regard too.

Filling the grease tanks

After leaving the plant, we stopped at a small biodiesel plant in Amatitlan, in the vicinity of Guatemala City. Pedro Ordonez, a professor of Chemistry at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, is the plant’s manager. The small plant, with a maximum capacity of 1500 gallons a day, uses solely restaurants’ waste cooking oil for the moment. It is low tech equipment but apparently it produces a good quality of biodiesel.

This small plant shows that it is not so difficult or expensive to produce your own biodiesel, however, mixing methanol and lye creates toxic fumes and must be done with extreme care.


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April 16 – In Guatemala - Nueva Allianza & Technoserve

Nueva Allianza – Community Ownership

Javier Myriam and community member

We had planned to visit the community of Nueva Allianza; but to our complete dismay, car woes - the rabbit’s alternator died (the bearings were totally shot) and one of the mercedes was having serious problems with their differential – combined with a complicated boarder crossing prevented us from making it. However; by a stroke of pure luck; the part of the group that had gone ahead while the rabbit and mercedes where being fixed ran into Javier at a restaurant along the highway. He and another member of the Nueva Allianza community spent the afternoon with us and joined us for our visit to Technoserve.

The Nueva Allianca community is made of of 40 families. Together they own their land and run several profitable businesses including a water purification company and an eco-tourism business.

Javier first learned of biodiesel at a lecture given by Matt Rudolf of Piedmont Biofuels. Since then he and a number of other farmers have begun producing biodiesel from waste veggie oil. He has been invited to several other countries to share their experience thus far with other farmers. They have formed a biodiesel producers´ association and are laying the groundwork for a large biodiesel production facility.


Technoserve - Jatropha Production

Jatropha Curcas is a plant that originates from Central America. It is a quite promising feedstock for biodiesel if the price of the jatropha oil can be produced at a low enough price to compete with fossil fuels. Jatropha cannot be used for food, grows in arid climate conditions, and rehabilitates the soil, doesn’t necessarily need irrigation or other inputs. It can be propagated from seed or from cuttings. Its average yield per hectare is estimated at 1.6 tonnes per ha, although this number is highly speculative.

Jatropha fences

It has been used for ages as fences to protect fields and gardens, as animals don’t eat it. While driving to the plantation, we saw miles and miles of these fences surrounding rubber plantations, and nobody has been using the fruits on an interesting scale until now. We picked up Luis, the secretary of the local community’s jatropha project and went to meet Emilio, a local farmer and to see the jatropha cuttings that he planted only 10 days before our visit. There had been no rain since planting; yet leaves were already starting to sprout (picture). He planted several rows of jatropha around his corn field where he normally would not plant anything. The only preparation of the soil that he did was to burn the weeds back with fire. Emilio is the first person to plant jatropha in the context of the Technoserve project. They will have to trim the bushes so that the branches remain low enough for easy harvesting by hand: Eventually; once the bushes are mature and producing a full crop of fruits (in 3-4 years), the oil will be collected and sold to a biodiesel plant in the proximity. A minimum price has been agreed on and Emilio the farmers can sign a contract with Technoserve. Their intention is to use abandoned or un-used lands so that the jatropha will not replace any existing crops.

branch of a jatropha plant
Greaseballers with farmer
















Technoserve – The Processing Plant

At the processing plant

Later in the day, we met Ludwig showed us his Mazatenango based biodiesel plant that will process the jatropha oil. For the moment he produces up to 350 000 litres per year, but he can drive the production up to 1 million litres per year. This would require 700 ha of jatropha plantations. Ludwig’s biggest current concern is access the raw material. The supply is dispersed. On the other hand, the biodiesel demand is high within Guatemala.

At the biodiesel plant they are experimenting with a wide variety of feedstocks; including waste vegetable oil, beef tallow, chicken fat; and rubber seed oil (Guatemala currently produces 65,000 tons of rubber per year and the seeds are not utilized – the oil could be extracted and the residues used to feed livestock.)

The visits to the plantation and the biodiesel plant were certainly a trip highlight for us. We will certainly keep in touch with Technoserve.


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Ethanol Production

In Guatemala we passed a sugarcane processing plant and for miles our nostrils were filled with the sweet smell from the plant mingled with the white smoke from the burning cane fields. Guatemala produces ethanol but apparently all of it is exported to the USA. This is the same in Costa Rica for all of the ethanol produced in their two ethanol facilities.

Unlike biodiesel, ethanol can only be blended with gasoline and at blends with more than 10% ethanol, engine modifications are needed. Vehicles that can run on high blends of ethanol are called Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFVs). The two main FFV markets are in Brazil (where they can run on any blend of ethanol up to E100) and the US (where they can run on anything up to E85 - they leave the 15% gasoline because of cold start issues). In general the key modification made to the vehicles is that a sensor is put in the fuel delivery system that tells the engine which percentage of ethanol is in the fuel and adjusts the combustion settings accordingly. Cost estimates for this technology vary, but hover around $100 per vehicle. Because ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline, some engine components are made from more resistant materials (natural rubber components for example are substituted).

April 15 – Disappointment in Chiapas

Unfortunately the visit of the biodiesel plant and the palm plantation in the Chiapas didn’t take place. The project managers were not available for a visit. But we could admire the wonderful landscape in Chiapas, where jp’s favourite organic coffee comes from.

The border crossing to Guatemala was incredibly complicated and we were nearly stuck in no man’s land at night, as the Guatemala police didn’t let us though, and the Mexican police took some time to accept us back in Mexico.

However, the next morning, on April 16th, we finally managed to cross the border and thanks to the great patience of Myriam and Juan-Carlos from Technoserve and Javier Jimenez from Nueva Allianza, we managed to visit great projects in the afternoon.

The people from Technoserve were waiting for us in Retalhuleu. There we also met Javier from Nueva Allianza. Javier told us about his community and their biodiesel production (more about this later) and we visited Technoserve’s new jatropha project.

April 13 - Suzanne

We had to stop and tie up the rabbit’s exhaust system after the beating it took on the road yesterday with some wire we found on the side of the road. Because we have now been in Mexico longer than we expected due to the Mercedes breakdown; our Mexican car insurance was about to expire so I spent 3 precious hours negotiating for a few more days of coverage for the vehicles from several different companies and then, once we were on the road; sweet talked our way through the various military check points we encountered. At one of them I thought we might have a serious delay. None of them had ever seen anything like us or heard of running on old veggie oil. After explaining how it worked and joking around with them, the soldiers eventually found the whole thing quite entertaining. We got a similar reaction at the next one and watched them chuckling in our rearview mirrors as we drove away.

arranging for insurance

April 12 – Puerto Escondito - Suzanne

Today we did a bit of nerve wracking driving. During the afternoon I was wishing that I didn’t have to concentrate so much on the road because the scenery we were passing was spectacular. We were on a coastal road where kidnappings are common. We were told, whatever you do on this trip, just don’t drive on that road at night. Everything takes longer than you think, and night fell before we arrived in Puerto Escondito. There were enormous speed bumps scattered all along the highway, often in towns and marked, but sometimes without warning. At night it was even harder to see them coming and we hit a few of them pretty hard. We nearly hit a donkey in the road and had to avoid a few stray cows, bicycles, etc. while driving like hell to get off the road as quickly as possible; and occasionally being blinded by the high beams of oncoming trucks coming through our scratched up windshield. But we made it safely.


Easter in Mexico

A beach in Mexico

Because of the Easter Holiday closures last week, we spent time repairing the vehicles and driving with a few stops at the beach. It was a beautiful drive down through Mexico and along the Western coast.

Getting the Rabbit’s Grease System Working - Suzanne

The grease system in the rabbit was not working well. The grease was not getting hot enough so we added insulation around the heating coil around the grease filter. One of the mercedes (a 1976 sedan that had been parked for nearly a decade before being donated to the greaseball rally organizers) had serious engine troubles in Mexico city. The Bosche mechanics who helped the greaseballers re-build the merc’s engine told us that the grease needs to be heated to nearly 180°F so that the fuel injectors can spray it in a mist as fine as diesel. The grease system in the rabbit was homemade by Jerad Comeau in Pennsylvania so we have been learning about it as we go. He had been using 5 gallon plastic jugs for the grease. We installed a much larger and sturdier metal tank for the grease but the caulking we used to seal the closure either melted in the heat or was softened up by the grease and the heat and didn’t hold. We’ve switched back to plastic tanks but have acquired some tougher ones so that we won’t be as worried about them cracking with the bumpy roads, heat, etc.

After a whole lot of tinkering, the rabbit still didn’t want to run on grease, so the only thing left to do was to change the filter in case it had clogged between Nashville and Mexico city. Voiàla!!!!! It worked like a dream. The rabbit is now running better than it has the whole trip, and it feels like it has more power as we chug up these mountain roads overloaded with grease, spare parts, etc:

It is SO nice to be driving on grease – no more diesel fumes, no more paying for fuel, no worries when we spill fuel – it is really fantastic. I have so say though, that after handling all of this grease, fried food is thoroughly unappetizing!


10 April 2007 - Mexico City & project programme in Central America by jp

Ben & Bing repairing the cars

10 days have passed since the beginning of the trip. We have just left Mexico City and are heading in the direction of Acapulco. Ciudad de Mexico has pleasantly surprised me, with its colourful quarters and extremely friendly people. We also have filled up our tanks and canisters with grease at the Hard Rock Café in Mexico City.

Some info about the vehicles

3 of the 4 cars run on grease or pure vegetable oil and diesel. They have a separate grease reservoir. Grease is the frying oil waste product that can be obtained from restaurants. Getting the right quantity and quality of grease isn’t always easy. The collected grease needs then to be filtered to make sure that most of the dirt has been removed before it gets to the car’s fuel filter. Driving on grease is a great way to recycle frying oil and reduce car CO2 emissions to zero. The 4th car (the van) runs on any biodiesel blend, from 0 to 100%, thanks to minor conversions to a normal diesel engine. Biodiesel can be produced from vegetable oils or animal fats.

Some info about the projects

Unfortunately, due to the Easter holidays we haven’t managed to visit Mexican bioenergy projects yet. But we should be able to find an interesting biodiesel project in the region of Chiapas, in the South of Mexico. The biodiesel plant is being constructed close to Tuxtla. A bit further off the main road a palm plantation would be supplying the raw material for the plant.

After our Mexican trip, we will drive through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and eventually Costa Rica. Several interesting project visits are lying ahead of us. In those countries, the major currently produced crops that could be used for biodiesel include coconut, palm oil, and to a lesser extent sesame, soy and cottonseed. Jatropha originates from tropical America and will be part of the biodiesel crop mix in the future. The major bioethanol crops include sugarcane, corn and to a lesser extent sorghum. For heat and power production, wood is the major resource together with sugarcane bagasse. More modest resources are waste products from rice, coffee and coconut.

In our draft programme we have considered visits to biodiesel and bioethanol processing plants, biogas cdm projects in palm plantations, jatropha plantations, a fish farm biodiesel project and many more. So stay with us for the rest of the trip! We will try to post news every 2-3 days.


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05 April 2007 - Texas - A Visit to Annie and Willie Nelson

Suzanne Hunt (center) with Annie and Willie Nelson

Annie and Willie were the most incredibly gracious hosts welcoming all of the greaseball rally participants to their ranch. Despite arriving hours later than we had planned due to mechanical problems and traffic, they spend hours visiting with us and filled our deisel tanks with Biodiesel.

The next day Annie, Wilie, their ranch manager Rusty, and I took four of their horses (they have about 30 that they have adopted - some abused, some on their way to the slaughter) and went for a ride on their 700 acre ranch. The wildflowers are gorgeous in Texas in the spring. We rode through an old movie set (an old wild west town) and talked about all of the celebrities that are now using biofuels. I did not know that Bonnie Raitt and Jack Johnson - two personal favorites - use biodeisel. Willie talked about his hope for a good Farm Bill.

05 April 2007 - Texas - A Visit to Pacific Biofuels at Carl's Corner

Carl's Corner Pacific Biodiesel Plant

We lucked out. When we stopped at Carl's Corner, the founder of Pacific Biofuels, Bob King was there. Bob and his wife Kelly started Pacific Biodiesel in Maui more than 10 years ago. They now have biodiesel production facilities operating in a number of different locations including the Northwest of the US and now in Texas. Bob and Kelly are two of the nicest people you could ever meet. Their focus on local energy production and community made them a perfect match for the Nelsons (Willie is one of the founders of Farm Aid and has been a lifelong supporter of family farmers. Annie is a passionate advocate of sustainability and renewable fuels.) The Kings became business partners with Willie and Annie Nelson and created Pacific Biodiesel Texas. They also teamed up to create Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, (which is how I met them), along with actress Daryl Hannah, the wife of actor Woody Harrelson, and others.

Their biodiesel plant at Carl’s Corner produced 8,000 gallons of biodiesel per day. They use locally produced cottonseed oil which arrives at the plant a deep red color and leaves as amber tinted biodiesel. A biodiesel-powered boiler heats the cottonseed oil which is turned into biodiesel in a continuous batch process.

03 April 2007 - Austin - reflection from JP on food vs. fuel in Mexico

corn oil for the car

I’m sitting in the Austin Youth Hostel, waiting for the rest of the crew to pick me up. Seems there is some delay. Austin is my first contact with the US. A nice little university town, with an impressive bat population under one of the city’s bridges. At sunset they all fly off in an impressive demonstration, and for over 15 minutes, you imagine being in Gotham City while trying to follow the hundreds of thousands of bats disappearing at the horizon… For me the trip has not started yet. So I take this free time and opportunity to find out more about the tortilla case.

According to British journalist George Monbiot, Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled. The price of wheat has also reached a 10-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows. Already there have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling the strain all over the world. Mr Monbiot concludes that the ethanol-based biofuels in the US play a major role in this and he calls for a biofuel moratorium in the EU during the next 5 years. Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute has also an article on food prices (Massive diversion of US grain to fuel cars is raising world food prices, March 21, 2007), explaining how current prices and futures for commodities have increased. According to Mr Brown, the price of tortillas is up by 60 percent. Angry Mexicans in crowds of up to 75 000 have taken to the streets in protest, forcing the government to institute price controls on tortillas. The author also suggests that the use of corn-based biofuels be at the origin of the price increases.

These are worrying facts. Tortilla prices in Mexico are a very topical subject, as we will driving through Mexico!

I would like to comment on those authors’ statements and to put them into perspective. Don’t get me wrong here. I am not necessarily supporting corn as a feedstock for biofuels. It hasn’t proven to be reducing greenhouse gases that much at all compared to fossil fuels and can have significant impacts on the environment. Especially the US should urgently start to diversify its biofuel sources. But I would like to start a debate on the positive vs. negative impacts of increasing commodity prices, and on the historical context of commodity prices with corn as an example.

Alexandra Spieldoch, Director of the Trade and Global Governance Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, shows us that biofuels are not the only factors influencing the corn prices in her speech on 16 March 2007, at a meeting organised by EESI. You can find the complete speech and other interventions on this topic, on the briefing page in Biofuels and Tortillas: A US-Mexican Tale of Chances and Challenges.

Some points that Ms Spieldoch made in her speech:

The tortilla crisis in Mexico, while likely has something to do with higher U.S. corn prices due to biofuel production, has more to do with failed macroeconomic policies that over time have allowed for corn dumping into Mexico and the destabilization of the Mexican corn industry. NAFTA in particular has created instability, loss of employment and food insecurity that is so prevalent in Mexico today (…). Since NAFTA, the U.S. has actually increased subsidies by billions to farmers as a result of overproduction and plummeting grain prices. Since NAFTA, Mexico has lost over 1.5 million jobs in its rural sector. Between 1994 and 2000, the national production of corn in MX was reduced by almost four percent while corn imports grew by 136 percent. The guaranteed price to farmers was reduced by 43 percent between 1994 and 2000, while tortilla prices went up by as much as three times (as much as 571 percent). And U.S. corn dumping into MX increased.

The Associated Press states Mexican farmers who now plant corn on 21 million acres are proposing expanding by 4.3 million acres in 2007 alone (…) Unfortunately, in the case of MX, 60 percent of the corn growers are subsistence farmers and stand little to gain in the production of corn for biofuels due to their lack of access to credit, resources, and infrastructure. However, growth in biofuels (…) will not solve agricultural commodity market distortions that are associated with free trade policies and have devastating impacts on other countries. And, it will not serve as a magic bullet to address social needs such as employment, local ownership, and food security.

This illustrates that the food vs. fuel debate needs much more thinking. First we need to check whether the price increase is really caused by bioenergy developments. Then we need to see whom price increases affect. Will farmers benefit? Will poorer consumers suffer? The situation is not black or white. The tortilla story tells us something important however, that we need to consider when talking about sustainability assurance. Bioenergy can benefit the farmers and bring them back into their job, but benefits will not automatically go to the small farmers, poor countries and local communities. Measures and policies should favor local development. I highlight some of IATP’s suggestions below.

  • Biomass must not be produced in any way that imposes unjust burdens on economically or socially marginalized communities, including communities in the Global South.
  • Safeguards must be put into place to ensure local consumption is prioritized over transporting or exporting biomass energy away from communities that produce them.
  • Local farmers and communities should have ownership and control over biomass production and processing facilities.
  • Public support and incentives must be focused on small-scale and local development, production and ownership.

That’s it for today Cheers jp


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March 31, 2007 - Inter-American Development Bank Send-off

Inter-American Development Bank Send Off
IDB Executive Vice President Daniel Zelikow

The Inter-American Development Bank got wind of the Greaseball Challenge and rallied behind us, sponsoring Grease Lightning, organizing a fantastic send-off event and arranging for media coverage. The brand new IDB Vice President, Daniel M. Zelikow, came to show his support and commented on the role of the IDB in biofuels development in the region saying, “in every country biofuels present different possibilities and challenges. One of the tasks of the bank right now is to work with each country to come up with a biofuels plan as part of the broader sustainable energy commitment that we have.” His staff even talked him into the driver’s seat of the truck so he could try out the grease system.

World Bank Send Off

President Wolfowitz at IFC Send Off

Not to be left out, the IFC (private sector branch of the World Bank Group) also threw a send off party for us and to say bon voyage to Emily Horgan, one of the key Greaseball organizers who works as a consultant for the IFC. The then President of the Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, came to show his support.








30 March 2007 - Trip Introduction

Today, politicians the world over are calling for significant increases in bioenergy production, with a special focus on biofuels. So, much to the surprise of many who've been long advocating the transition off of fossil fuels, we find ourselves in the situation where, when just a few years ago we were pleading to mostly deaf ears to take alternatives to petroleum seriously, now, biofuel projects are mushrooming.

Trans-Atlantic Cooperation? - Jean-Philippe & Suzanne before driving 4,500 miles together in a 1981 VW rabbit pick-up truck

Who will produce these fuels? Where? And for who's benefit? It is not unreasonable to think that this industry will follow the well worn path that so many global agricultural and forestry commodities have paved towards concentrated ownership, petrochemical intensive models. It is also not off base to point to the many instances where bioenergy, sustainably developed has brought multiple, critical benefits.

The passionate bioenergy debate that is playing itself out in the media, the blogosphere, and in country diners, pulperias, and cafes is healthy and to be expected with such a complex issue. However, much of this debate could be better informed and better targeted on the truly critical issues. Throughout our travel, we’ll try to highlight some of these issues and to use the on-the-ground experiences from the projects we visit to feed the debate. We hope to discuss issues such as positive and negative environmental impacts of biofuels, food vs. feed vs. fuel, local community projects vs. large-scale industrial plantations, technology transfer and many more. We hope that readers will share their views and questions to make this trip as interactive as possible!

Suzanne will kick off the rally in Washington with the rest of the crew on March 30th, while Jean-Philippe (JP) will join on the 3rd of April in Austin.

See you then!
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Our Rabbit

Our VW Rabbit

This is the vehicle that will carry us to Costa Rica. She has only 240,000 miles under her belt, and 20,000 of them on waste vegetable oil (WVO)! She came with the name "Grease Lightning".
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