Elbow Grease

When I tell Kimber Holmes that I am profiling people who make a living through green work, she quickly interrupts. “Oh,” she says with a tinge of irony in her voice, “this doesn’t support me. You can’t make a living off green.” Though Holmes spends forty hours a week at her biodiesel pump, she supports herself by renting out space in the storage facility just behind.

Holmes, in fact, doesn’t even aspire to make a profit off biodiesel. “My goal in the future is to automate my fueling system so that I don’t have to be in the office forty hours a week. I can be home growing food, which is far more important to me.” Holmes’ station in Mendocino County’s Laytonville is a small portable setup with one pump that dispenses fuel produced by Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah. Soon she hopes to have two more stations planted around her area, starting with a second twenty miles south in Willits and a third an hour north in Garberville.

“We’re not looking to expand,” Holmes says. “We’d rather encourage people just outside or touching our bioregion to create another small-scale, localized, and sustainable biodiesel production system.” She classifies a bioregion as within a three-hour radius. “We don’t want to take biodiesel to Sacramento,” she says. “We want to see Sacramento make its own.”

Holmes notes that people get into biodiesel thinking, “‘Oh, it’s going to make me money,’ but the reality is it’s not really happening yet.” Biodiesel still costs more than petroleum diesel, and Yokayo Biofuels, which has been in business for eight years, didn’t start meeting expenses until several months ago. “But of course,” Holmes says, “at real world prices, without all the subsidies, we are cheaper.”

Holmes first became interested in biodiesel in 2003, when she needed a new car. She was drawn to electric, but she needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle that could haul feed to her off-grid home, which is about five miles down a dirt road. She decided to buy a used diesel pickup and began making the hour-long trip down to Ukiah to buy biodiesel, filling a hundred-gallon transfer tank on the back of her truck with enough fuel for the week.

What appealed to Holmes about biodiesel is that the fuel can be used in both current cars and the existing infrastructure. Instead of having to create a new kind of vehicle or a new way of dispensing fuel, she could use an old diesel pickup. “We’re pre-cycling,” she says, “because we’re using vehicles we already had!”

Holmes is not fond of the new gasoline hybrids. “My big old Dodge truck has fewer harmful emissions than a Prius,” she says, “and that’s because petroleum diesel already has better emissions than gasoline. When you run a diesel vehicle on biodiesel, you’re doing even better.” And buying biodiesel, she’s quick to point out, supports the local economy.

According to Holmes, biodiesel tends to be more reliable than renewable sources such as wind and solar power. For people who live off the grid and rely on diesel generators for backup power, biodiesel is a clean alternative.

Soon Holmes began telling her friends about biodiesel. “I’d get a hundred gallons, and then they were like, ‘Oh, can I get some from you?’ and I would pump thirty dollars into their truck, and they would pay me what it cost. We knew it wouldn’t make us money.” When Holmes began making the trip down to Ukiah’s Yokayo every three days, it dawned on her that this was something she might start at home.

Besides the single pump in downtown Laytonville, Holmes also operates a fuel tanker for home deliveries. In rural Mendocino County, it’s not uncommon to deliver 100 to 500 gallons of fuel to a home storage tank. Soon, however, she’s planning to sell the fuel tanker and will have Yokayo make deliveries for her—she believes that deliveries directly from the production plant will prove more fuel-efficient.

Holmes performed a great service as part of setting up her biodiesel pump: she convinced the county to grant different zoning requirements to biodiesel than it does for other fuel storage and service facilities. Teaching the officials of Mendocino County that there is no danger of toxicity or other hazard, Holmes convinced them to develop a brand new language that pertains only to biodiesel. It no longer requires industrial zoning, and that change affected not only how biodiesel was received in the community—altering how members of the fire department, the waste department, and Fish & Game regard the station—but it also lowered taxes, making it a little more possible for other biodiesel stations to eke out a living.

In fact, most of what Holmes does is education. “My time that I spend in the office—ninety percent is talking to people.” She speaks with everyone from consumers to people interested in developing biodiesel stations of their own. Biodiesel can be made from almost any chemically altered vegetable oil—from hemp to cotton to palm to recycled restaurant grease. Trap grease (from drains in restaurants meant to extract grease from waste water) and float grease (the stuff that goes down the sink and ends up at the waste treatment plant) both work well.

Part of Holmes’ work is teaching people how to run biodiesel. The fuel is a solvent that will keep the fuel filter sparkling clean, but in cars ’93 and older, biodiesel may expand gaskets in fuel return lines, causing hairline fractures and, over time, weeping and sweating. The fix, a replacement line, costs eight dollars. Biodiesel can cause difficulties in cold weather, because the heavier fats form wax crystals, which sink and inhibit fuel flow. A mechanic who doesn’t know better might diagnose severe engine troubles. “But all you have to do is warm the car up and maybe add a little petroleum,” says Holmes. “Misinformation creates unnecessary repairs.”

Not all biodiesel is as environmentally friendly as others. Last year, the nation made 75 million gallons of biodiesel; only 2 percent came from waste greases, despite the nation producing over 3 billion gallons of waste grease. Over 90 percent was produced from GMO soy, a low-yield crop that nevertheless needs a lot of petrochemical inputs to make it to your gas tank. Part of the problem is that the government doesn’t subsidize the use of waste grease the way it has subsidized soy oil since the ’90s, when production of pressed soy animal feed created a huge surplus of oil. Producers using virgin soy oil get a dollar rebate, while producers using waste grease get only 50 cents. California, of course, doesn’t have an abundance of soy, yet we do have a plethora of waste grease, called yellow grease, from the restaurant and service industry.

In Europe, three out of every four vehicles runs on diesel, and there are diesel-electric hybrids. Biodiesel has been commercially available there for over fifteen years and sells for less than diesel. “In Europe they tax you for the more polluting fuel whereas here we subsidize you for the more polluting fuel,” Holmes says.

Before becoming involved in biodiesel, Holmes worked on intentional communities. After settling in Laytonville and meeting her partner, she’s focused on natural building and permaculture. She teaches classes in natural building, such as with cob, natural plasters, and strawbale, through the Northern California Women’s Herbal Symposium.

Holmes helped organize the California Biodiesel Consumers Conference, which was established as a shadow conference to the National Biodiesel Conference, to provide a forum for small-scale, local biodiesel production as well as a voice for B100, or 100 percent biodiesel. The California Biodiesel Consumers Conference spawned the Biodiesel Council of California (BCC), of which Holmes was the first acting executive director. The conference was later renamed the Sustainable Biodiesel Summit to stress its broader goals and relevance.

Currently, the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, a trade organization that came out of the SBS, is working to create a labeling standard for biodiesel similar to the LEED rating. The goal is to allow consumers to make the most sustainable choice. Holmes believes the fuel she sells will achieve a high rating on sustainability, because Yokayo makes its biodiesel locally from waste grease.

This year, Holmes moved away from her leading role in the sustainable biodiesel industry. She is now active on the Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council, which grants her a political voice within the community to deal with issues of renewable energy, economic localization, and smart growth and development.

Holmes says that the giant agri-companies like “Archers Donald Midland and Cargill and Monsanto aspire to be the Shell and Chevron as we move to a carbohydrate fueling future and away from a carbon one.” Holmes says it’s important that their models don’t become the norm because they are not concerned about the greater picture that needs to teach people to consume less and to utilize renewable energy: “Their goal is just to make money on this huge shift.”

Holmes is heartened by the interest in biodiesel and sustainability, but she says the higher price is a big downside. “There would be a lot of demand, but as soon as you tell them it’s not cheaper, it doesn’t matter what else you say. People don’t want to pay the higher price because they don’t differentiate the value.” A good day sees twelve customers at the downtown pump, while an average day yields six to eight.

“At this point we’re breaking even,” Holmes says. “We do own stock in Yokayo Biofuels, and if they continue to do well and succeed, then maybe our kids will go to college.”

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