Nestled on the barren, politically volatile plains of eastern Colombia lies an epicenter of inspiration and hope for those committed to making sustainable technology and practices a working reality. The people of Gaviotas—some 200 scientists, engineers, and former street kids—generate electricity using windmills and solar collectors and grow their own food using organic techniques. They even tap into the energy of children's play by hooking up a pump to a schoolyard seesaw. In addition, Gaviotans have planted 36,000 acres of trees in the thin, nutrient-depleted soil, thereby sheltering re-emerging plants and animals indigenous to an area once roofed by a tropical canopy that may have stretched as far as the Amazon. (See more on Gaviotas in YES! Fall & Winter 1998 and Winter 2004.)
For nearly 33 years, however, Gaviotas has relied on diesel trucked in across the plain to fuel the community's small fleet of tractors and vehicles. When Gaviotans learned that students and resident from Boulder, Colorado, had been converting vehicles to biodiesel, they jumped at the opportunity to try out a more sustainable, locally available alternative, and invited the young people to Colombia to help design and build a biodiesel processing plant.
How did Boulder become a center for biodiesel innovation? In the fall 2002 semester, Andrew Azman, then a 21-year-old environmental engineering student, enlisted several other CU students to design and build a biodiesel processor on campus to convert waste grease from the campus dining halls. CU Biodiesel was born.
“My inspiration for the biodiesel project came from a feeling of despair in escaping the claws of the petroleum industry,” says Azman. “Before starting CU Biodiesel, I had worked on numerous other environmental campaigns, but most were based around negativity towards governmental policies and corporations. Biodiesel was a solution I could offer to the community.”
Azman quickly built connections with other Colorado-based biodiesel users. Among them were fellow student Evan Belser, who has since served as co-director of CU Biodiesel, and Martin Stenflo of the Boulder Biodiesel Cooperative. With the support of their city and campus communities, Azman, Belser, and Stenflo helped 100 Boulder residents switch to biodiesel for their personal vehicles. They've done the same with several Boulder city vehicles and all 13 of CU–Boulder's campus buses.
In October 2003, Gaviotas' founder, Paolo Lugari, spoke at a Sustainable Resource conference held in Boulder. There he was introduced to Stenflo and Azman, and he quickly saw that biodiesel could have deep implications for not only Gaviotas, but for all of Colombia. Lugari invited members of the Boulder biodiesel community to Bogotá to help design and build a biodiesel processing facility.
Biodiesel is made by combining vegetable oil or animal fat with methanol and a small amount of lye. Most diesel engines can run without modification on pure biodiesel or biodiesel-diesel mixes. Most commonly, vehicles run on B20, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. The fuel can be created using virgin vegetable oil or by recycling used oil from restaurants or cafeterias, making it a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Although the resulting exhaust may smell like doughnuts or french-fries, biodiesel emits far less sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and unburned hydrocarbons than petroleum diesel.
In April 2004, after six months designing and preparing to build the processor, a team of six CU students and Colorado residents—Stenflo, Belser, John Bush, Melanie Zaucher, David Biwosky, and Nicholas Helund (all of them in their 20s)—arrived at Centro Las Gaviotas, a Bogotá-based organization that supports the community of Gaviotas and similar projects. For two weeks, the Coloradoans teamed up with a Colombian electrician, a plumber, and a welder to build the biodiesel processor. Less than a month later, construction was completed.
Stenflo and Belser anticipate that the Bogotá processor will produce 400,000 gallons of biodiesel a year. The Colombian-American team hopes this mid-sized facility will create new jobs, stimulate the rural economy, and allow local, sustainable fuel production to continue even as international oil supplies dwindle.
Biodiesel production does not require trained engineers or complex machinery. The team has successfully trained a Colombian man with only fourth-grade education to be the Bogotá facility's plant manger. Using this facility as a model, the plant manager will teach others how to produce the fuel, encouraging farmers and vehicle owners to develop their own “micro-brew” biodiesel processing facilities throughout the county.
Biodiesel pros and cons
Biodiesel brings the benefits of reducing reliance on oil, but it carries its own challenges. Bio-diesel doesn't perform as well as other fuels in cold temperatures, and, although it is friendlier to the envi-ronment than petroleum diesel on most counts, biodiesel emits a higher level of nitrous oxide. Most problematic, biodiesel still remains an expensive alternative to diesel fuel.
But Stenflow points out that many of these obstacles can be overcome with adequate infrastructure and stronger governmental support. And the benefits of biodiesel outweigh the shortcomings. Even with increased nitrous-oxide emissions, biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have fully met the health-effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act. Plus, biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that does not require the purchase of a new vehicle, so it can help fuel the millions of diesel vehicles that are on the roads right now.
Large-scale production of biodiesel is slowly catching on in the United States. According to the National Biodiesel Board (www.biodiesel.org), as of May 2004, 400 major U.S. fleets have begun to use biodiesel. Included on the list are Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, public school districts, utility companies, NASA, and all major branches of the U.S. military. One of Colorado's first and largest users of biodiesel has been Peterson Air Force Base, located in Colorado Springs.
“This is not just about the environment and health,” says Stenflo. “It's also about stimulating local farmers and local economies, and creating American jobs. Each gallon [used by the Peterson base] is 100 percent American.”
Likewise, each gallon produced at the facility in Bogotá will be 100 percent Colombian. The fuel will be created primarily from locally grown palms. According to Stenflo, one acre of palm trees can yield enough fruit to produce about 200 gallons of oil per year—five times as much as the soybeans or canola grown in Colorado for biodiesel. And one gallon of crude palm oil can be converted into nearly one gallon of biodiesel.
Three thousand gallons of the biodiesel produced in Bogotá this year will be reserved for use in Gaviotas. Gaviotans have taken biodiesel tech-nology one step further, by modifying at least one tractor engine to run on straight, unprocessed palm oil. Lugari and his fellow Gaviotans have begun planting a variety of palms, hoping soon to fuel community vehicles with community fuel crops.
Should biodiesel production be successful in Colombia, however, Gaviotans may face a new challenge: how to prevent fuel crop production from competing for land and water with food crop production. With farmland and forests already burdened by overuse, there are limits to how much land can be made available to production of oil crops for biodiesel without compromising food security.
Stenflo, Azman, Belser, and their peers realize that members of their generation will be at the center of the looming oil crises. They have joined Lugari and fellow visionaries at Gaviotas in em-bracing the inevitable transition to alternative sources of energy.
“Perhaps, eventually the energy industry will shift to renewables because all the traditional sources for fossil fuel are exhausted or because the renewable technologies offer a higher potential for profit,” Belser says, “I prefer not to wait, but to work for this shift.”
Brian Edstrom is a former YES! intern, a graduate of Colorado College, and a teacher of English in China.