Tavern offers fuel for grease-car owners

Montgomery County initiative seeks to link alternative-energy enthusiasts, oil providers

October 06, 2007|By Kenneth R. Fletcher | Kenneth R. Fletcher,Capital News Service

BETHESDA -- Like most restaurants, the Barking Dog tavern fills up a metal drum with grease that has fried its share of wings, then pays to have the old oil hauled away by a rendering company.

But the Barking Dog also siphons some of the used oil back into 5-gallon jugs and leaves them by a rear exit, hoping someone will pick the oil up and pour it into his car.

It's not a prank, but part of what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation government effort to link up restaurants that want to dispose of waste oil with enthusiasts who need it to fuel cars modified to run on the grease.

"For me it's a very practical application. I've got the grease sitting here," said Barking Dog owner John McManus, who would otherwise spend about $300 a year to get rid of the used oil.

The Barking Dog is the first restaurant to join an online forum that the Montgomery County Department of Public Works created in August after drivers started calling the county looking for used vegetable oil. Rather than bringing oil-seekers to the county's crowded disposal area, the exchange hopes to send grease-car owners directly to restaurants, said Rick Dimont of the Montgomery County Division of Solid Waste.

Such a grease-swapping post has been eagerly sought by people such as Frank Chu, an architect from Rockville.

Chu bought a diesel 1994 GMC Suburban two years ago and had it modified to run on straight vegetable oil after immersing himself in the Internet subculture of alternative-fuel enthusiasts. The conversion can be done on any diesel car with kits ordered online for about $1,000.

He does not get his grease from the Barking Dog but relies on a Rockville restaurant he found on his own, before the forum was created.

Advocates claim that vegetable oil is a "carbon neutral" fuel, ideally emitting no more carbon into the air than is taken up by the plants grown to produce the oil, and not contributing significantly to the buildup of greenhouse gases.

But because of the legal gray area the fuel is mired in -- the Environmental Protection Agency has not approved its use -- and the potential for engine damage if used improperly, state officials say they are not yet endorsing the fuel.

"It's kind of odd. It hasn't really been accepted or unaccepted by the state," said Chris Rice, transportation program manager at the Maryland Energy Administration.

Grease-car enthusiasts, who are modifying diesel engines in growing numbers as fuel prices rise, say Montgomery County is taking a step in the right direction.

"I think it's great that the government is recognizing it on some level," Chu said of Montgomery's online forum. "It's an oddity at this point."

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