Back in pre-Inconvenient Truth 2004, oil was mostly something we were fighting for, by extension, in the streets of Iraq. The danger of climate change (and the risks of extracting oil, to say nothing of natural gas) hadn’t yet hit Americans in the face. And pouring vegetable oil tossed out by fast food restaurants into gas tanks was something crazy hippies did.
Well, one in particular: when, that year, Josh Tickell rolled across the country in a diesel truck powered by a blend of ethanol and fry grease he sucked out of dumpsters, his five-year campaign had all the markings of a one-dude Carter-era here-comes-the-future pipe dream.
The thing was, his pipe didn’t belch a toxic brew of CO2, NO and other pollutants. It was as safe and homegrown as it smelled, just like french fries. Even better: vegetable oil was a heckuva lot cheaper than the alternative, which in 2004 was on its way to an all-time high. In the end, Tickell’s Veggie Van wasn’t a flash in the frying pan: it was on the bleeding edge of a global energy idea so significant, it promised to replace petroleum-based fuel completely.
But it would also lead to a backlash over the unintended consequences of growing food for fuel, like rising food prices and water shortages. Today, the cost of food around the world is pushing all-time highs, putting developing countries “on the edge,” the president of the World Bank said recently. Though the causes range from environmental to political, biofuels have been roundly blamed – sometimes called ‘unethical’ for taking valuable food plants away from the food supply in Asia and Africa. Then again, argues the International Energy Agency, biofuels, if sustainably grown and harvested, could actually boost global food stocks by encouraging investment in agriculture.
Either way, Tickell’s not slowing down. In this installment of Motherboard, “Fuel,” (named after Tickell’s own Sundance-winning documentary) Eddy Moretti visited Tickell and his fiancé Rebecca Harrell at their home to ask how they took his climate-changing, clean-burning energy revolution to the masses, and why he’s talking up a new, safer kind of biofuel based on algae. Yes, you can have fries with that.