La Antigua Guatemala is a small city which enjoys a robust tourism industry and hosts innumerable Spanish language schools for foreigners. Buried in the colonial architecture (which earned the city status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) lies all the trappings of modern civilization. The relative wealth of La Antigua amidst the poverty and violence of Guatemala has afforded the city opportunities to modernize, and the government seems open to all ideas which may propel La Antigua into the 21st century as assuredly as any western nation.

Towards the end of last year the municipality introduced a free wireless zone in its central park, earning it status as the first digital city of Latin America. The novel concept of free wi-fi for all has been championed by consumer advocates the world over but in San Francisco the process has been bogged down by negotiations with competing providers and to this day there is no such service, but in La Antigua they just decided to roll up their sleeves and make it happen. When one thinks of Guatemala they probably don’t imagine internet cafes and people using their laptops in the park, but access is available to all who would wish to make use of it.

As encouraging as that development is the people of La Antigua are preparing to lay the ground-work for another first, and possibly becoming the first city of its kind in the entire world. According to Rudy Giron’s excellent La Antigua Daily Photo, a group of dedicated people are busy laying the framework for an alternative fuel project for the city. Biopersa organizers went from restaurant to restaurant collecting spent cooking oil with the intention of reprocessing it into biodiesel for municipal vehicles and the local hospital. If the initial steps are successful and the idea takes hold La Antigua Guatemala could be the first city which operates its city vehicles entirely on reprocessed biodiesel.(See bottom for an update.)

Years and years (and years) ago I stumbled across a documentary playing late at night on KQED. It was called Fat of the Land and it followed a group of women driving a van from New York to San Francisco powered by biodiesel. They stopped at fast food restaurants and greasy spoons along the way, asking managers for their used grease, mixed the oil with lye and washed the result to produce their own gasoline. It was an amazingly revealing and infectious movie which I encourage you to see, not simply because of the science involved but the spirit of the women involved.

Years and years ago my friend worked for the post office, driving the rural routes outside of Olympia, Washington. I remember talking about the possibility of converting the engines of postal vehicles to run on biodiesel. His objections were logistical, mostly due to the lack of centralized amenities in the Olympia area, but conceded that the concept could work in other places. Since he delivered mail in his Volvo wearing whatever he happened to be wearing that day I guess he had a point.

But what about a city such as San Francisco, which prides itself on ingenuity and environmental purity? Could this town create a sustainable network of fuel producers, processors and refueling stations to support the fleet of official city vehicles? I’m not exactly sure how the politics work out but it seems that between kitchens in public schools, public hospitals, city and county jail kitchens and assorted cafeterias a fair amount of cooking grease must be in use every day. The grease has to be changed frequently and it disappears somewhere, probably taken away by a private company paid to clean out grease traps.

So why not redirect this spent grease to a city reprocessing plant where it can be mixed with lye, washed and drained, and shipped to city vehicle pools for refueling? The most obvious stumbling block is that a standard engine can’t process biodiesel without being converted which would require an initial set-up cost, but as the price of producing the fuel would undercut the price of gasoline derived from crude the money would be reclaimed over time. If the problem is more a matter of having access to enough cooking grease, then local restaurants would probably prefer having their traps emptied by a city collection than paying for the service. Economically, without any pesky facts to dissuade me, it sounds good and the benefit ecologically seems unimpeachable.

Perhaps there was a reason this wasn’t already being done. Scratching my head a little I wondered if there had ever been an attempt to evaluate the logistical possibility of converting the city’s vehicles to run on biodiesel. Curiosity continued to nag with no answers to satiate its persistent gnawing so I figured I should write Ross Mirkarimi, my local district supervisor, to see if this idea had been run into a wall before.:

Mr. Mirkarimi or Relevant Staff Member:

Hi, I’m a resident of District 5 in San Francisco, although this
doesn’t pertain specifically to my neighborhood. Recently I read a
brief article about efforts in Antigua, Guatemala to revolutionize how
city vehicles operate. A small group of people is attempting to
develop a sustainable fuel supply to eliminate the need for gasoline
by establishing a network of oil reclamation, re-processing and
distribution. Instead of relying on the growing bio-fuels industry,
which has been widely criticized for producing more Co2 (through
manufacturing and deforestation) than could be offset by consumption,
the Antigua model would have spent cooking oil removed from
restaurants to provide the raw materials needed to process bio-diesel.
The ecological benefit of removing gasoline-powered cars from the
streets is obvious; the economic gains from creating a cheap and
sustainable gasoline supply could possibly be significant. Antigua is
a small town in a poor country so I’m curious what a large city in a
rich country can do when it comes to taking steps to ensure a better
tomorrow.

What I’m interested in knowing is whether a feasibility study has ever
been conducted examining the possibility of replacing conventional
crude-derived gasoline with an alternative, specifically bio-diesel
(reprocessed, not manufactured) but also electric or other, and if so,
what the results of that study suggested. If there has been no such
study I wonder if one has ever been discussed, how it might be
conducted and what sort of time-frame is to be expected. I suppose
that ideally the city and county of San Francisco could produce enough
cooking oil from civic buildings (i.e.: General Hospital, San
Francisco City and County jails, SFUSD cafeterias, City College,
various governmental cafeterias) to provide an ample supply of raw
material to be processed and distributed centrally, but some collusion
between local businesses could also be quite beneficial for the entire
city.

Any information that you or your staff could supply regarding this
issue would be greatly appreciated. I understand that you all must be
very busy and I thank you for taking the time to read this and respond
if you can.

Twenty-four hours have passed and I’ve yet to receive word, but I’m quite sure that the good people down at City Hall have a lot on their plates. This is the first time I’ve ever considered writing an elected official for anything, let alone for information which would probably require a little research and writing me back. Hopefully my naive notions of government won’t be shattered by the harsh realities of modern politics.

Muchas gracias to Rudy Girón for allowing me to use his photograph as well as for his original posting about Biopersa’s work. The second image is a still from Fat of the Land which doesn’t seem to be available for rental but you can negotiate a purchase from a couple of the women who made it– it’s a good documentary.

UPDATE: Okay, so maybe I should have gone to sleep instead of squinting at the keyboard last night, for it seems I made some mistakes. Not little ones, of course, big ones. Since I’m running late for work (because I stayed up too late squinting at keyboards making mistakes) I’m just going to quote Rudy Giron:

Antigua Guatemala’s Biodiesel Project is ALREADY REAL. It’s been over a year that ALL CITY VEHICLES run on biodiesel (except for the micro traffic police carts). Also, a good amount (somewhere between 30% to 50%) of the fuel diesel used by the Obras Sociales del Hermano Pedro Hospital (a top of the line free or/and low cost hospital focus on social service and for the poor) is taken care by the Antigua Guatemala’s Biodiesel Project.

Antigua’s Biodiesel Project produces some of the best biodiesel available anywhere. Check out the coverage that Laboratorio en Moviemiento, a biodiesel awareness project for Latin America, made of Biopersa’s diesel (http://www.flickr.com/photos/26630539@N04/sets/72157606055935888/). This is what they wrote back in July 2008:

> Ya estábamos listos para retomar vuelo y pasar pronto al Salvador… ¡Pero el espíritu del viaje nos tenía otros planes! Apenas llegamos a Antigua y cabal vemos pasar un camión de la municipalidad con la inscripción PROYECTO BIODIESEL – ahí nos teníamos que quedar, siete días más… ¡Qué ejemplo a seguir para todo el continente! Antigua es la única ciudad latinoamericana en reciclar el aceite usado de sus restaurantes, procesarlo en biodiesel y alimentar así una flotilla de vehículos del municipio y de un hospital. Conocimos a Alejandro del Valle y Mario Molina, los empresarios de Biopersa (www.biopersa.com), la empresa encargada del proyecto de biodiesel en colaboración con la municipalidad y la embajada de Suiza. Además de caernos de maravilla, nos dieron cien litros del biodiesel más nice que hemos visto y la camioneta ronronea de felicidad …

Sorry for screwing that up! Also, it’s always bad form to incorrectly name the city you’re talking about, even if it’s technically acceptable. I don’t accept Frisco for San Francisco so no one should have to accept Antigua, Guatemala for La Antigua Guatemala.

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