You paid HOW MUCH!? Why bother?
That's what some folks say when I tell them how much it cost to convert the Land Rover Defender to run on vegetable oil.
While most people (mechanics, environmentalists, and laymen alike) are simply thrilled to know that this kind of conversion exists and stand in awe of such an ingenious and beautifully designed engineering feat, there are a few who simply can't justify the cost with the return. And, I understand their concerns.
Now, I'll admit, this conversion was expensive. We removed the gasoline engine and stock transmission and replaced them with a diesel engine and a better transmission. That added a tremendous cost to an already expensive conversion.
So, if saving money is your goal, don't do what I did. You could do it yourself and spend as little as $200 converting a car that already has a diesel engine. But, we were after bigger game. We sacrificed some fuel economy and horsepower for reliability, torque, and automation (I didn't want to spend half my day scrounging and filtering nasty oil.)
So, I didn't gain much in fuel economy; The Defender's lack of pep will make you cry; Used oil is getting harder to find; And, that diesel engine is pretty noisy. So, with all these drawbacks, why on earth did I do this conversion?
Well, we actually had two different goals in mind: One - free fuel. And, Two - an earth-friendly fuel source.
Now, keep in mind that going "green" fits very well into my Vanishing America project. I can't, with good conscience, go around documenting a Vanishing America and be a carbon-belching contributor to it at the same time. So, the decision was largely an environmental choice. But, let's talk specifics...
Reason Number one: Free Fuel.
The free fuel issue does seem to be changing due to the fact that waste oil is becoming a commodity. However, at this stage, it's still attainable, and at $5 per gallon for diesel, it's rapidly paying off. As a matter of fact, I just got back from two round trips to Chattanooga, TN (a total of 500 miles solely on used veggie oil). That means, at a 15mpg average, I saved over $160 in fuel. Multiply that over the course of a 10,000 mile year (with diesel prices continuing to climb), and we're talking about a conservative potential savings of $3500/year. Not much compared to a $30,000 conversion, but it adds up over time. But, money wasn't the only reason for the conversion. Which brings me to...
Reason Number Two: Earth-friendly fuel source.
Petroleum-based fuels are bad for the environment. We all agree on that. And, they come from a limited resource. (It may take a hundred years or more before all the oil is gone, but eventually it will be gone.) Waste oil, on the other hand, is completely renewable. And, since it comes from restaurants, it has already been used once. That means we don't have to pump oil from wells, we don't have to use crops that reduce the food supply, and, most importantly, we don't have to burn other fuels to process this waste into something that can be reused. It's a beautiful, efficient system.
Now, what about the waste oil becoming more difficult to get. Well, that's definitely the case. Every day, I see evidence that the cycle is progressing. It began with restaurants paying to have the oil hauled away. When renderers realized they could profit from the oil, they began to pick it up for free. Now, with more competition, some renderers are actually paying the restaurants for the oil. This cycle was expected. But, the good news is that the engineers responsible for creating new biofuels have not been sitting idly by. They have come up with ways to get fuel from waste wood, plant waste, tree bark, and even algae. And their progress is phenomenal. I expect that right about the time that everyone has to pay for waste oil, these engineers will have perfected these new ways of obtaining fresh oil, effectively collapsing the bubble created by the demand for waste oil. And, that puts guys like me back in the driver's seat. And, I see all of this happening within 5 years.
So, yes, the conversion was very expensive. And, on the surface, seems like a waste of money. But, I'll save at least $3500/year on fuel, there are still literally tens of thousands of places all over the US who will give me free oil, and my consumption of this product actually has a positive effect on the environment. And, that, to me, is priceless.