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Burnt blessing

The anointed one may be that Jetta

Rev. Lee Ann Pomrenke

It slathered through the hair and beards of the kings of Israel and Judah as they were anointed by the prophets. Now it fries your burgers. Some of it may actually be good for you, but not all of it. In fact, you might give it up for Lent — of course, after you first live it up a little on Fat Tuesday.

It’s oil. Grease. Fat.

Our God is a remarkable God, and the blessings we receive can be subtle — yet of course always to be received with gratitude and put to the best use.

Consider the case of Pastor Lee Ann Pomrenke of St. Paul and her physician husband, Dr. Stefan Pomrenke.

Whatever its merits in the Bible or demerits at your neighborhood grill, vegetable oil has moved on to something else. Now it powers Pastor Pomrenke’s 1999 Volkswagen Jetta as she drives from her St. Paul home to her north Minneapolis church and makes her rounds. She is pastor at River of Life Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in north Minneapolis.

That which hallowed the anointed ones of Israel was most likely olive oil, which is supposed to be good for you. It may very well be part of the fuel mix in Pastor Pomrenke’s Jetta — but so are a lot of other vegetable oils that may be less good for you — if you eat them. Pomrenke burns them.

Her husband Stefan practices family medicine at St. Paul’s McDonough housing project. He finds exquisite irony in their veggie-mobile. “I love the symbolism of creating energy from what makes Americans fat,” he says. “This is the stuff I tell my patients not to eat.”

Green and cheap

When their old car didn’t start one Christmas Day not long ago, the Pomrenkes made an unctuous choice: Convert a diesel vehicle to burn waste restaurant vegetable oil.

The outcome has been practical, green — and cheap. The Pomrenkes fuel up once a month or so at a Minneapolis cooperative. The veggie oil likely pollutes less than standard diesel but gets them about the same mileage as diesel from a gas station. And it costs them only about $2 per gallon — half the going rate for standard diesel.

The Pomrenke's griesel-powered car sports an appropriate license plate. Metro Lutheran photos: Bob Hulteen

Biodiesel from restaurant vegetable oil is a viable alternative as an automotive fuel.

They count all this as helping to take care of God’s planet. “I see it as a vocational calling,” says Dr. Pomrenke, “to be stewards of the environment.”

Biodiesel from restaurant vegetable oil is a viable alternative as an automotive fuel, and a small co-op in Minneapolis exploits it. Griesel Cooperative has about 10 members, including the Pomrenkes. The co-op regularly collects used vegetable oil from a few restaurants and processes it to biodiesel for members.

It’s a lot of work, to be sure. Members hop in a truck to bring back the oil in barrels from participating restaurants. Processing the feedstock means filtering and heating to remove detritus.

Moreover, it won’t scale up much. “The whole world can’t decide to do this and thereby solve the fuel problems of the world,” says attorney Peter Tiede, a Griesel Co-op member and son of former Luther Seminary president David Tiede.

Yet waste vegetable oil from restaurants works just fine as a substitute for diesel, say its advocates. You do need a diesel-powered vehicle, and a conversion kit that may cost $1,000 or more. You’re not so good under the hood? Shops around the country will do it for you for $2,000 or so. The Pomrenkes drove their Jetta to Holyoke, Massachusetts, to have it refitted for veggie oil.

Vehicles powered by this so-called “griesel” need ordinary diesel to start — and this warm-up period takes longer in winter. So converted vehicles require a spare tank in the trunk for griesel while the engine gets going using ordinary diesel from the main tank. After running for a few miles, a heads-up indicator on the driver’s-side windshield tells the driver it’s OK to switch to griesel. “As convenient as GPS,” says Pastor Pomrenke.

The Pomrenkes have a standard 13-gallon tank for diesel and another 13-gallon tank installed in the trunk for griesel. That’s less space for luggage, but the extra tank means fewer stops for fuel along the way. “We have done a couple of road trips from Minnesota to the East Coast,” says Dr. Pomrenke, “and to drive from here to Pittsburgh and back to Chicago without ever visiting a gas pump definitely is liberating.”

So, ever does God anoint us with interesting blessings. Of course, you may have to look carefully to find God’s grace. In this particular case, it just might be that diesel-burner ahead of you in traffic.

Burn this: All about diesel

Diesel powers autos, trucks, locomotives, ships, and other heavy equipment. It’s made from fossil fuel, but operates differently. Gasoline engines like those in most autos ignite fuel with a discharge from spark plugs. Diesel engines, however, compress the fuel-air mixture, causing it to ignite.

Diesel engines are known for their high thermal efficiency — their capacity for converting stored chemical energy in the fuel into mechanical energy.

The Pomrenke's "veggiecar," parked here in front of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches' Division of Indian Works in south Minneapolis, looks like any other car in the lot.

The veggie oil likely pollutes less than standard diesel but gets them about the same mileage as diesel from a gas station.

If veggie oil intersts you, first and foremost you need a diesel vehicle. Conversion means placing a veggie tank in your car, perhaps in the trunk. The fossil fuel diesel tank stays.

The car is turned on in fossil fuel mode to warm up the engine to 150 degrees fahrenheit, and then switches over to veggie mode. When you complete your drive, you must press a button to flush the grease back into your veggie tank before you turn off the car. “Easy,” says Dr. Stefan Pomrenke of St. Paul, a user of veggie biodiesel.

Also, the veggiecar fuel filter must be changed every 3,000 miles or so.

Advocates note that biodiesel pollutes less than fossil-fuel diesel, but biodiesel critics have another worry: The Union of Concerned Scientists points out that biodiesel may divert soybeans and other crops from the food market, raising food prices. Moreover, as prices rise, farmers around the world may clear more land for soybean production, which can damage local environments and contribute to climate change.

Re-using restaurant veggie oil sidesteps that concern — this feedstock has already done what it’s going to do in the food chain. Now it can go for fuel.

The trouble is that veggie oil can’t scale up much. Restaurants want to dispose of veggie oil properly — but if they realize it has value, they may begin charging more for it. Veggie oil prices would rise, and the advantage of the veggie car would diminish.

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