With magic bus, former punk plies fuel frontier


By Daniel Wallace

Imagine sunlight turned into music. Imagine motion powered by plants. Imagine all the people, living in harmony. O.K., scratch that last line, and instead of a poetic future vision you’ll have the realistic portrait of a modern machine.

Since 2003 a 35-foot school bus that runs on vegetable oil and solar power has been cruising the country in a nationwide environmental campaign to raise public awareness of alternative forms of energy.

The bus, owned and operated by B.I.O. Tour, a nonprofit organization based in New York City, represents the convergence of normally opposing forces, in which an automobile produced by oil-driven industry has been adopted by environmental activists; and an environmental activist who formerly described himself as an anarchist has learned, through the bus, to embrace big business.

Brent Baker, also known as D.J. Arrow Chrome (his middle name is Arrow), the 35-year-old director of B.I.O. Tour, first came to New York at 19 when he was “a punk rock kid with a purple mohawk.” Since then he’s gone from street squatter, to hitchhiker, to anarchist political activist, to radio D.J., to party D.J., to director of a nonprofit organization and, finally, to C.E.O. of a corporation.

Baker became D.J. Arrow Chrome in 1995 when he started the Lower East Side pirate radio station, Steal This Radio, 88.7 FM, which broadcast nightly programs of news, politics and music. And, around this time, he formed an organization called Blackkat that promoted and organized underground warehouse parties.

He also became a fire-eater.

It was, in fact, during a tour as a fire-eater with a politically-oriented traveling circus, that Baker first heard the call of alternative energy.

“The circus was spending a lot of money on fuel,” Baker said. “It was frustrating, because a large portion of the funds raised at these underground political events was going to big oil.”

While the circus was in San Francisco in the summer of 1995, Baker met a group of women traveling cross-country in a biodiesel van, about whom a documentary, “The Fat of the Land,” was made. The idea of biodiesel so excited Baker that he xeroxed the group’s literature, and began promoting it.

Although Baker wanted to use biodiesel for his own tour, a few things prevented him. Biodiesel is basically vegetable oil that has been chemically altered with methanol in order to change its viscosity, so that it can be used in standard diesel engines, like normal fuel. But methanol, according to Baker, is a major component of fertilizer bombs.

“We didn’t want to do anything that would allow us to be framed as bomb makers,” Baker said. “I mean, we were handing out anarchist propaganda; it’d be an easy sell.”

Moreover, methanol is highly flammable and explosive, the dangers of which Baker learned through the experience of a friend, who welded a metal platform to the back of a bus, secured a 55-gallon steel drum filled with methanol to the platform, and began a biodiesel trip that soon ended when the platform gave way, scraping along the concrete with “sparks flying up, methanol splashing down, and people yelling pull over.”

“For me, that became a sort of parable,” Baker said, “whose message was, don’t travel with methanol.”

But Baker wasn’t ready to give up. He promoted the formation of biodiesel collectives in different cities across the country: a network of backyard stations where biodiesel would be produced locally, thus eliminating the need to travel with methanol. Such a network exists today. And, in 2000, Baker learned about a bus in Australia that runs on waste vegetable oil, unaltered.

“I said, O.K., this is what we have to do,” Baker said.

He started throwing Blackkat fundraising parties in order to finance the purchase of a similar bus. But the money came slowly, and Baker felt inspired by 9/11 to raise the level of his activism. So he started the nonprofit organization B.I.O. Tour (then called Sustainable Energy Now), saved money, quit work and began writing grants.

By the winter of 2002, Greenpeace had donated a bus, and Baker had raised enough money for a national tour. Since then, the B.I.O. bus has logged over 25,000 miles. Baker said the tour travels cross-country in the summer and regionally in the spring and fall. During the winter the bus is stored in Brooklyn.

The bus, whose diesel engine remains unaltered, is painted green and silver with large black phrases on its sides. Its roof is layered with seven solar panels. The panels charge six deep-cell batteries that, through an inverter, power inboard electricity and a 4,000-watt sound system used for parties and presentations. The bus has two fuel tanks and an additional set of coolant lines.

The main fuel tank contains waste oil from restaurants, which store discarded deep-frying grease in barrels out back. A small hose that extends from the side of the bus can be dipped into the oil to pump it through a series of filters and into the main tank.

But vegetable oil at room temperature is too thick to run in a diesel engine. So the second fuel tank, filled with petroleum diesel or biodiesel, is used to start the engine and to heat the main tank. After about 20 minutes on the road, the driver can flip a switch and the main tank will kick in.

“But you know, the reality is, people don’t want to have to change their fuel systems, or to dig around the back of restaurants,” Baker said. “They’ve got other things to do.”

For this reason Baker believes biodiesel is the most practical source of alternative fuel. It can run at cold temperatures in standard diesel engines. It has a host of environmental benefits — including more than 48 percent less carbon-dioxide emissions than petroleum diesel. And, according to Baker, it smells a little like popcorn.

But Baker recognizes that, in order to be used on a large scale, biodiesel must be produced efficiently. In other words, affordably.

“And that’s where industry kicks in,” Baker said. “It’s funny, because I come from a background of radical-left politics, and now I’ve discovered the importance of business and industry in our society.”

According to the National Biodiesel Board, the production of biodiesel in the United States has gone from 2 million gallons in 2000 to almost 25 million gallons in 2004. This exponential growth is largely the result of an increased number of manufacturing plants — there are now 45 in the U.S., according to the N.B.B. — and the efforts of farmers, especially soybean farmers, whose soybean oil is not a premium oil. Soybean oil’s use in biodiesel has increased its value.

In August President Bush signed an energy bill that included the extension of federal biodiesel tax credits and incentives.

“It’s amazing,” Baker said. “When I first started promoting biodiesel, no one had heard of it. Now it’s caught on like wildfire.”

In fact, when Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine at the turn of the last century, he intended it to run on peanut oil, though the engine has since been modified to run on petroleum diesel, which is cheaper to produce on a large scale.

Baker, in order to fan the flame, started Tri-State Biodiesel in 2004, a corporation that collects waste oil from restaurants and will build a biodiesel refinery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which is slated to begin production in 2006. On a recent afternoon Baker sat at a plywood desk in his East Village office, signing letters to over 500 restaurants in the city that have signed up for Tri-State’s waste-collection service.

“That’s over a million gallons worth of biodiesel,” he said.

On the opposite desk, on a stack of papers, lay an illustrated story that Baker’s 10-year-old daughter, Felix, wrote for school.

“Look at this,” he said, flipping through the story. “My daughter, she’s brilliant. There’s a girl named Esperanza who, in 2057, discovered that the world ran out of oil.”

Baker turned the pages and explained how, in the story, Esperanza brought the evidence to a New York Times reporter, who muttered, “More crackpots,” but then realized it was true.

“Here’s the last paragraph,” he said. “Esperanza was looking out the big window, and instead of seeing the old Shell station, she saw a biodiesel-processing plant.”

Baker blinked and looked down.

“Brings tears to my eyes every time,” he said.