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Fill'er up with biodiesel

The Lovecraft Biofuels lot on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. About a dozen old Mercedes diesel cars await conversion to biofuel. Lovecraft performs about five conversions a day.

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: AAA estimates that more than 41 million people will hit the road this Independence Day. And with gas averaging $2.93 a gallon, they're going to have less in their holiday budget for sparklers. Tess Vigeland tells us rising gas prices have some motorists rethinking their fuel options.


TESS VIGELAND: I met up with Ben Calderwood at his apartment in Brentwood, on the west side of Los Angeles. He's a copywriter for an ad agency. When he goes to fill up his tank, he stops first on the front porch.
BEN CALDERWOOD: So, three 5-gallon fuel containers. I'm gonna grab this one and they weigh a ton . . . .

Calderwood's 2003 Volkswagon Jetta sits parked just around the corner. He pops open the fuel door and unscrews the gas cap.

The fuel sitting on his porch was biodiesel, a mixture of methanol — wood alcohol — and some sort of vegetable oil. The Jetta was already a diesel car so Calderwood didn't have to do anything to convert it to biodiesel. He buys the fuel at a nearby gas station — one of very few in the L.A. area that sells it. This week it's going for $3.49 a gallon.

Hardly sounds like a bargain. But he estimates he gets up to 650 miles a tank on the freeway, about 8 cents a mile. As for the rest of us . . . .

CALDERWOOD: Let's say . . . I don't know, I don't pay attention to the prices of gas.

VIGELAND: I filled up for $3.15 yesterday — $3.15 a gallon.

CALDERWOOD: I don't know what kind of car you drive . . .

VIGELAND: I will admit, it's an SUV. It's a Honda Passport.

CALDERWOOD: So maybe you're getting 30 miles a gallon on the freeway. Something like that.

VIGELAND: Oh, yeah, if I'm lucky. I fill up after 250 miles.

CALDERWOOD: So, easily, on a per-mile basis, you're paying more even though my fuel is more expensive than yours.

A few miles south Josh Tickell takes his biodiesel commitment a step further. He makes and pumps his own.


JOSH TICKELL: We're standing in the backyard of my Venice Beach house here and as you can see I've got some various drums of biodiesel.

VIGELAND: And what is that made from?

TICKELL: It's made from used cooking oil. Actually got it at the Mexican restaurant down the street.

Tacos and methanol. Mmmmmmmmm.

Tickell is the author of several books about biodiesel, including "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank." He says the basic gear costs a couple hundred bucks. But users see more long-term benefits.

TICKELL: What they find in terms of engine wear is engine friction goes down dramatically. So what you've got is an engine that's lasting 30, 40 or 50 percent longer.

There's another option that, again, as long as you already own a diesel car, costs relatively little. It's 100 percent veggie oil without the methanol. LoveCraft is a biofuel conversion shop just outside downtown L.A. For $700 they'll take your old Mercedes and make it run on soybean, canola, whatever you choose.Brian Friedman started the company:

BRIAN FRIEDMAN: It's a fairly maintenance-free system. You can use it as a daily driver to get to work and back reliably. There's nothing you really have to learn to drive it.

Biofuel users don't get any insurance breaks. No tax breaks yet either. Those are reserved for hybrids.Of course most people who run biodiesel will tell you they're not doing it for purely economic reasons.They say the true costs of fossil fuel are far greater than what you pay at the pump.

In Los Angeles, I'm Tess Vigeland for Marketplace.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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