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Grease to Gas: Biodiesel on Campus

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It started as simple curiosity, but snowballed into Brooke Owyang’s personal mission and a large-scale, campus-wide project. Owyang, a Conservation and Resource Studies major and member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability (CACS), was already familiar with energy issues when she learned that a clean-burning fuel known as biodiesel could be created from waste vegetable oil. She set out to learn more, and found that while the city of Berkeley had implemented biodiesel to fuel its recycling fleet years ago, reducing their emissions by 14 percent annually, Cal’s trucks still run on regular diesel. “As soon as I learned it could be done I wondered, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” Owyang recalls.

Biodiesel can be used without any engine modifications and is relatively easy to process; it can be homemade in any kitchen. The challenge, then, is simply finding a reliable source of spent cooking oil. And where better to find grease than Cal’s dining halls?

Owyang approached Cal food-service managers and campus Recycling and Refuse Services with the idea to create a biodiesel processing operation that would convert used cooking oil into fuel for the campus truck fleet. Her pitch: not only is biodiesel eco-friendly, but it also could cut grease disposal and fuel costs for campus. Working with Recycling and Refuse fleet manager Lisa Bauer, Owyang and some friends put their plan into action.

In April 2005, Owyang created the Berkeley Energy Alliance for Renewables Biodiesel (BEAR Biodiesel) and won a prestigious Green Fund Grant from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability. Since then, the group has successfully piloted the program. Owyang graduated this spring, but expects BEAR Biodiesel to expand beyond the pilot program once the group secures proper facilities to process fuel in greater quantities.

Since graduating this spring, Owyang has continued to work on biodiesel as a sustainability intern at the UC Office of the President and as an energy commissioner for the City of Berkeley. Her advice for future ground-breakers? “Be persistent and ask the right questions. Someone will eventually listen.”

-Stephanie Tran


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