HARDWICK, MA– Powered by vegetable oil? That’s what the white lettering on the rear windshield says, but most don’t believe it; at least not at first.
Looking at the 1997 Volkswagen Jetta, the statement on the back of the vehicle is the only indicator that the car doesn’t operate on a traditional fuel. But, aside from the start up and shut down of the engine, fossil fuels are not needed for this vehicle.
Rather than burn vegetable oil to prepare fish and chips dinners, husband and wife Brayton Shanley and Suzanne Belote Shanley, use the fuel to drive what they call a more socially and environmentally responsible vehicle.
The Shanleys, co-founders of the Agape Community, what they call a ministry of prayer, simplicity and nonviolent education, have attempted for many years to live simply and employ alternative energy sources. Their car is one of many what are called “grease cars” in our area.
For the Shanleys, the idea of utilizing this technology came about because they were unhappy driving conventional vehicles that burn gasoline. “It starts with a profound disenchantment with oil,” said Brayton. “I don’t think too many Americans have to be talked into a dislike of oil. It’s a substance that we go halfway around the world to get. We pay a fortune for it, we pollute in getting it and we pollute in using it,” he said.
Agape, a lay Catholic community, celebrated its 21st anniversary October 4. Several demonstrations of the car were conducted as part of the daylong anniversary celebration, which hosted approximately 150 at the 32-acre Agape property in this central Massachusetts town. The Shanleys are parishioners of St. Aloysius Parish in Gilbertville, Mass.
Grease cars are automobiles with diesel engines that run on oil as well as diesel fuel. Used vegetable oil, like that from a restaurant which cooks fried foods, is suitable as a fuel after it is filtered. Vegetable oil straight from the grocer’s shelf can also be utilized. The cars also run on a mix of diesel and soybean oil known as bio-diesel.
While the Shanleys may be subject to the occasional joke about their car “Can I get some fries with that”– they said there are much more serious reasons for “driving vegetarian.” The Shanleys said this brings them closer to the teachings of the Catholic Church. “We’re Catholic Christians dedicated to Jesus Christ,” said Brayton, “and he’s all about living simply, to being kind to all living things, to being harmless.”
“It doesn’t make sense to be impassioned in the love of Jesus and be living high and being the number one polluter in the world.”
Political concerns added to the Shanleys motivation to begin driving a grease car. “As the war in Iraq seemed imminent, we at the community sought to look within, to see where our lifestyle was fueling the madness of this aggressive, pre-emptive war,” said Suzanne. “We began to see oil as the source and symbol of a lifestyle of privilege leading to our military violence. Non-cooperate with oil, we reasoned, and you starve this war at its source,” Suzanne said.
Even before the most recent conflict in the Middle East began, the Shanleys were attempting to divest themselves of their dependence on oil and “electricity from the grid.”
“Oil is such a precious material that we get into political disagreements and empire building,” Brayton said. “So, the question is ‘Do we want to just keep using oil?” The answer, for the Shanleys, is a resounding “no.” Several years ago, they built and began living in a straw bale house and utilizing solar panels for electricity. They grow much of their own food for their vegetarian diet. They have a compost toilet, which uses no water, and burn between 15 and 20 cords of wood each year, for cooking and heating both houses on the property.
With all of the lifestyle changes the Shanleys have made, they said nothing has gotten the response that the grease car has. “People are enchanted,” said Brayton Shanley. “Of all the things we’re doing, nothing strikes the imagination as much.”
He said he doesn’t expect everyone to follow their alternative energy lifestyle example fully, but that people can make gradual changes. “You want to put oil out of business progressively,” Brayton Shanley said. “And you will make a more peaceful planet. Start converting your life over to other forms of energy.” He said eating a vegetarian diet is a good start because the meat industry pollutes heavily.
According to Brayton, restaurants have to pay to get rid of the used oil they accumulate after deep-frying foods. “So you’re doing them a favor (to take it),” he said. “It’s a good deal all around.”
In March, the Shanleys had a 15-gallon fuel tank installed in the trunk of their four-door sedan to accommodate the oil. Filtered oil is pumped into the tank, allowing the diesel engine to burn vegetable oil.
The Shanleys said they get between 40 and 50 miles per gallon using either diesel fuel or vegetable oil. The performance of the vehicle varies little between the fuels. “It runs as good or better (on oil) than on petrol,” said Brayton.
According to Justin Carven, owner of Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems in Florence, there are many reasons his customers choose to “drive vegetarian.” He said grease cars make great economic sense, since there is no cost for used vegetable oil, although it takes roughly an hour and a half to filter a tank-full of used oil. Grease cars have been in use locally for about five years, said Carven and are increasing in popularity. Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems is a manufacturer of conversion systems that enable any diesel-powered vehicle to run on unprocessed vegetable oil.