"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Off-the-Grid Energy

I don't want to give the impression that I'm the only one playing the self-sufficency game around here: Homero has his own project that has nothing to do with farming but which will eventually contribute tremendously to our independence. It's biodiesel. So far, his project consists mostly of collecting vast amounts of waste vegetable oil from various mom-and-pop restaurants and storing them in my art studio. (See Leda behind the boxes? The swan has flown south and left her with a bunch of eggs.) Each of the boxes in the picture below holds 10 gallons, and I think there are eight boxes. 

Oh, and trips to Home Depot. Many many trips to Home Depot.  This get-up below is the actual biodiesel maker... it's an old water heater with a lot of tubes coming out, as you can see. The veggie oil needs to be heated to 130 degrees. Somewhere, there must be inputs for the chemical additives, which are methanol and potassium hydroxide. These inputs are the hold-up. Methanol can be bought in 55 gallon drums from a race car supply shop in Burlington (what do race car drivers use it for? I don't know. ), but it's very expensive. And potassium hydroxide is hard to find. Homero has been trying to find it locally for about a month, and can't. He could use sodium hydroxide (lye), but I guess it isn't quite as good. Nor is it easy to find, the days when drug stores sold Red Devil lye in the laundry section being long gone. I remember when I made soap from scratch years ago, I had to beg a little lye from my college chemistry teacher. Also, we've been told that buying potassium hydroxide in bulk puts you on a terrorist watch list; who knows if that's true?

There is a local farmer here who makes biodiesel in very large, 400 gallon batches, and we have been trying to get in touch with him to ask where he gets his inputs or if we maybe could buy from him since we only need small amounts. Homero's set up will supposedly make 40 gallon batches. There must be more to it than you can see in the picture, because there are also filters - several filters, ranging from 10 microns down to 2 microns, which is smaller than most people filter but Homero wants to be safe. Also, where does it come out? Pure glycerin is a by-product, and it has to precipitate out somewhere... well, as you can tell by now, I don't know squat about biodiesel, except that my car will run on it. Supposedly, if our waste oil is free, the biodiesel will cost about $1.50 a gallon to produce, not counting the start up costs. Homero tells me that he has spent only about $300 so far, but I have my doubts. I know how many trips to Home Depot he's made.

But there is one area that the biodiesel could pay for itself very quickly, and that's home heating. Currently we use propane, which is close to $3 a gallon today and which will certainly go up as winter approaches. Switching to biodiesel would necessitate buying a diesel furnace, but I've seen used ones on Craigslist pretty cheap. We'd really be taking a major step toward independence if we could supply our own heat. What would be left, really, except electricity?

We've got great wind here. New goal: windmill in three years!