SF Gate -Berkeley’s Biofuel Oasis Pumps Up Local Living in the Bay

Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley is an all-women worker-owned cooperative and urban resource for folks who want to lighten their ecological footprints and maybe raise a chicken or two. Besides selling biodiesel and farm supplies, the Oasis regularly offers workshops on diesel car maintenance; raising chickens, ducks and goats in urban environments; and rainwater harvesting and graywater for gardens, to name just a few.

Biofuel Oasis evolved from the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective, an offshoot of the Ecology Center. The collective was formed on Sept. 11, 2002, in response to the 9/11 tragedy. To help reduce gasoline consumption, the collective taught people to brew fuel from used vegetable oil.

Why vegetable oil? Using biodiesel reduces dependence on foreign oil and the need to “drill, baby drill,” in the oceans, its supporters argue. The Environmental Protection Agency found that using biodiesel, rather than diesel or gasoline, significantly reduces greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfates, hydrocarbon and air toxics emissions. Biodiesel is non-toxic and virtually inflammable;it ignites at 350 degrees, compared to gasoline which can ignite at 43 degrees, so it can be stored above ground.

In 2003, collective members Jennifer Radtke and Sara Hope Smith decided to sell biodiesel directly to customers and opened Biofuel Oasis on Fourth Street in Berkeley. In May 2009 the Oasis moved to its present location on Ashby Street.

Melissa Hardy of Oakland has been with the Oasis since the beginning.

“Our goals are to keep nurturing the seeds we’ve sown and to become a community hub for urban farming,” explained Hardy. “We want to keep providing sustainable fuels and enabling the community to localize their lifestyles in the Bay.”

Biofuel Oasis members live the buy-local credo. They buy biodiesel from Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, Calif., about 125 miles from Berkeley, and Bentley BioFuels in Minden, Nevada, about 200 miles away.

Yokayo collects used vegetable oil from hundreds of local restaurants and removes the glycerin in the oil through a process called transesterification. The thinner oil is capable of powering a diesel engine with no or few modifications. Biodiesel can also be blended with petroleum diesel directly in the tank if biodiesel is unavailable.

(Ironically, emissions-reducing technology found in diesel engines made after 2007 may exclude these cars from using biodiesel.)

Biofuel Oasis only sells fuel processed from recycled vegetable oil. Hardy explained that biodiesel made from virgin agricultural oils has a larger environmental impact because it displaces food crops, adds to problems of industrial agriculture and is often shipped from overseas. The Oasis has an oil dumpster where people can drop off their used cooking oil. Each week, Yokayo vacuums it up on its rounds. Biodiesel at the Oasis currently sells for $3.84 per gallon.

The demand for urban farming education and supplies are growing at the Oasis, Hardy said. Novella Carpenter, author of “Farm City,” is one of the group’s owner-workers and, of course, its resident goat expert. Customers can buy organic chicken feed, straw bales, beekeeping supplies, worms and organic plant starts in Berkeley rather than driving to farm stores many miles away.

Workshops are welcome to all; many class participants haven’t taken the step to become biodiesel users. Hardy said that, as people learn new skills, such as how to cure olives, they gain confidence and take more classes to find out how to produce more of their own food.

Biofuel Oasis is an active member of the Network of Bay Area Cooperatives, an organization dedicated to building democratic workplaces. It provides support and resources for cooperatives, from organizational and technical help, to ideas about developing group benefits and mediation.

The five women owners work part-time shifts that allow them to pursue other interests. The Oasis has recently introduced a membership card for customers, so they can fill up even when the station is closed.

Last year, Biofuel Oasis won an Eileen Fisher Business Program for Women Entrepreneurs grant for $10,000. The group just returned from three days in New York to meet the other four awardees and the Eileen Fisher committee. Hardy said it was inspiring to get to know such generous, successful business owners.

“We can’t wait until the day when we are big enough to pay it forward to other small businesses through a charitable program,” she said.

Biofuel Oasis is located at 1441 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley. It has a new station at 14 Greenfield Ave. in San Anselmo.

Regular station hours: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Freedom Fueling Hours: Monday to Sunday, 7 a.m. to midnight

Call 510-665-5509 or e-mail for more information.

To learn more about Biofuel Oasis and workshops, click here.

For more information on cars that can safely use biodiesel fuel and other questions, click here.

To find out what you can do to help make new diesel vehicles be made biodiesel-compatible, click here.
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