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The Social Dimensions of Do-It-Yourself Environmental Solutions

Publié le 1 octobre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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This article presents a case study of a small car-share and the operation of a micro biodiesel production facility. In addition to providing anecdotal evidence of the feasibility of biodiesel ‘homebrewing’, this example also highlights how a cooperative ethics of ‘making do’ may be relevant to the cultivation of environmental solutions more broadly.

Celine Nadeau, Biodiesel, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

If a recent application is successful, a large biodiesel refinery will be built near Edmonton, Alberta. The location is convenient both for its ready access to raw materials – i.e. crops of rapeseed or canola – and for proximity to its market, which includes the fleets of diesel trucks and other machinery serving oil sands production. The fact that the refinery will supply renewable energy to fuel the extraction of a non-renewable energy source is not paradoxical; it is what makes the entire endeavour feasible within the existing economic system. According to the company’s CEO, the high volume of diesel consumption makes the project ‘a good fit’ (1).

This project differs from an earlier and much smaller Alberta biodiesel project initiated by three friends living in Calgary. They decided to buy a car together and produce their own biodiesel. While both initiatives address the issue of climate change by producing renewable fuel, they differ in their social and economic implications. Not only did the car-share operate on a much smaller scale, it also worked with an emerging, do-it-yourself technology – the production of biodiesel from waste cooking oil. Making use of this technology both required and facilitated cooperative social arrangements. Despite having a comparatively small impact, the experiences of the members of the car-share present a window on the social dimensions of environmental change sometimes overlooked in larger projects that produce an environmentally friendly product without changing consumption patterns.

Biodiesel Production: Harvested or ‘Homebrewed’?

Most of the biodiesel produced today is sourced from oilseed crops – usually soybean or canola (2). Commercial production worldwide is increasing, especially in countries that are committed to sourcing a percentage of fuel on the market from renewable sources (3). Even now in certain locations across Europe, the US and, more recently, Canada, drivers of cars with diesel engines can choose a biodiesel blend at the pump. Through partnerships with large-scale agricultural producers and the use of existing infrastructure, biodiesel promises to be an economical and seemingly painless way to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, since it will require no more of drivers than their choice at the pump. Critics warn, however, that as long as biodiesel is produced from dedicated crops, reduced emissions must still be considered in the context of energy-intensive production processes. At the same time, turning over agricultural land to the production of fuel crops may create negative environmental effects like deforestation and decreases in soil fertility (4).

Biodiesel produced from waste vegetable oil (WVO), on the other hand, does not require a turnover of agricultural land, and it avoids the emissions produced during planting and harvesting. Nonetheless, it has received considerably less attention from policy-makers and significant barriers to its commercialization, even on a small scale, remain (5). Nonetheless, interest in small-scale production has generated intense activity on a grassroots level around the world. While requiring some technical savvy, the equipment is not prohibitively expensive to acquire, and people all over the world currently drive vehicles powered in part or entirely by biodiesel produced in their own backyards.

According to David Conz, who has studied these developments in the US, biodiesel – often called ‘homebrewing’ – is a form of “citizen technoscience”. Non-professional biodiesel experts tend to collaborate outside institutional contexts to share expertise and solve technical problems via online forums, workshops and the publication of educational materials (6). Homebrewing therefore takes place outside of official scientific and economic activities, and represents an area of innovation in which individual creativity and problem-solving come together with divergent cultural processes and alternative forms of organization. The car-share project in Calgary, discussed in detail below, is a good example of how ‘citizen technoscience’ tends to operate in a particular kind of social context. It also offers some insights into the way different social forms may be an important part of environmental change more generally.

The Calgary Car-Share

The founding members of the Calgary car-share were environmentally-minded and motivated both by their enthusiasm for the Rocky Mountains as well as by the difficulty of getting to work during cold, snowy winters. In addition to providing them with access to convenient transportation without a large financial commitment, the car-share also enabled them to organize and undertake biodiesel production from WVO (7).

In late 2001, the group purchased a 1992 VW Golf diesel for $4500, with the payment divided into three equal shares. Operating expenses (insurance, fuel, maintenance, etc.) were paid from revenue generated by driving the car. Members paid to drive the car, and ‘the car’ paid for its expenses out of its own bank account. Driving the car cost $0.25/km in the city and $0.15/km on the highway. Each member was responsible for recording kilometres driven and expenses incurred in a trip log book. In this manner, not only were expenses equitably distributed between the members, a direct economic cost was associated with every trip taken. This was an effective disincentive for driving that ensured that the use of the car remained consistent with the original objectives of the car-share.

The car-share was based on the principle of equitable distribution of vehicle responsibilities and benefits. Responsibilities included vehicle expenses (e.g. capital cost, maintenance, operation and insurance), vehicle maintenance and tasks related to biodiesel production. A consensus-based decision-making process was used to develop a set of guidelines that were agreed upon by all members. Each individual had equal opportunity to express thoughts and opinions on car-share guidelines and its day-to-day operation (8).

Reservation of the car was organized primarily through the use of an online calendar. Each member was allowed at least one weekend per month – a second weekend required the consent of other members. Although there were few conflicts between the needs of different members; when they did occur, it was usually with regard to weekend use. In general, members were committed to the use of alternative modes of transportation, such as car-pooling, cycling and public transportation. Therefore, rather than becoming the sole mode of transportation for its members, the car-share complimented other modes, and was used principally to run errands or drive to the mountains.

Although patterns of use changed over the life of the car-share, the model was flexible enough to accommodate changes. As it turned out, the biggest challenge was driving enough kilometers to cover operating expenses, since the car was often left unused for extended periods. In the long run, this challenge could have been addressed by either increasing driving rates or inviting another member to join.

According to the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), the average total cost of owning and operating a car (e.g. a Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24 four-door sedan driven 12,000km) is $8,581 per year, or $.715 per km (9). In contrast, individual members of the car-share ended up paying between $700 and $2300 per year, depending on their usage of the car. Even after adding in capital and depreciation costs, the costs were well below the national average.

Fueling the Car-Share with Homemade Biodiesel

Inspired by the environmental group Sierra Youth Coalition’s “Climate Change Caravan,” which, in 2001, crossed the country with a team of cyclists and a bus powered by homebrewed biodiesel; members of the car-share decided to pursue biodiesel production in order to reduce the car’s emissions and overall impact on the environment. After some investigation, they decided that the most cost effective way to achieve this goal was through a process called ‘transeterification’, which combined used cooking oil with methanol to make biodiesel (10).

In 2002, a small-scale, backyard production facility (with roughly 150 litre capacity) was built following the methods outlined in Joshua Tickell’s book “From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank.(11)” The initial investment required for equipment (e.g. processor, storage barrels, etc.) was very low due to a partnership with a local trading cooperative, which supplied salvaged materials for the processor. A ‘local currency’ grant from an environmental and social justice resource centre covered the manufacturing costs (12). It is important to note that because members of the group considered biodiesel production to be an interesting project, they ‘donated’ personal time to collect used vegetable oil from a food production facility and a local restaurant, and to produce the fuel. Therefore, the labour costs were non-existent and members of the car-share paid very little to operate on biodiesel.

From a technical standpoint, while members had a lot to learn and the results of the process were sometimes less than perfect, homebrewing turned out to be a worthwhile endeavour for the car-share collective. The engine of the car required no modifications for use with biodiesel, and while cold weather use was not possible, the car ran on between 0 to 100% biodiesel during the warmer months, depending on supply (13). In general, there was very little difference in engine performance when running on 100% biodiesel, despite a small decrease in fuel efficiency (14). Overall, the inclusion of biodiesel production was considered to be an economical means of ensuring that the car-share maximized its environmental integrity.

Lessons from the Calgary Car-Share

Three main elements of this case study are relevant to the implementation of environmental solutions on a broader scale. First, correlating payment for expenses with usage was not only an equitable way of sharing expenses, but also served to reward personal flexibility. Because members paid according to their use, they were encouraged to use the car only when its value was maximized. The cultivation of individual flexibility via alternative transportation options, combined with an equitable decision-making process, also helped to minimize conflict between group members.

The same principle also applies to larger car-share organizations, whose popularity is on the rise. Payment in larger organizations is also according to use, and membership tends to lead to a reduction in overall car-use (15). Rewarding individual flexibility in this way is a non-coercive way of getting individuals to commit to lifestyle changes.

Secondly, the initiation of biodiesel production within a small but well-connected collective meant that certain common difficulties – practical, technical and economic – could be overcome relatively easily. Not only did members have access to educational resources on homebrewing, they also collaborated with sympathetic local organizations in order to acquire necessary materials. The value of these connections highlights both a potential strength and a difficulty for the pursuit of similar environmental solutions in different contexts. Individual innovators may find their efforts limited if they are not able to connect to sympathetic organizations, or networks of individuals like themselves. On the other hand, government initiatives are generally able to mobilize a wide variety of groups and collective mechanisms to facilitate implementation.

The power of existing infrastructure is, for example, part of what enables the Austrian city of Graz to collect waste cooking oil from local restaurants and then convert it into biodiesel for use in the city’s buses. Not only does the city make use of existing infrastructure and staff to organize the collection of oil and produce the biodiesel, it has access to a ready-made ‘market’ for the finished product (i.e. the city buses). Given that they tend to be relatively accessible to ordinary citizens, the power of local governments to implement innovative solutions is worth exploring.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the role of shared interest in learning how to produce biodiesel was vital to the success of the Calgary car-share project. We should note that while these individuals were motivated by environmental concerns, many homebrewers are also motivated by the prospect of saving money and increasing self-reliance (16). This suggests that getting people to invest time in making environmentally friendly lifestyle changes may be more successful when these changes tap into tangible benefits. Second, the interest of car-share members in biodiesel was, in part, “inspired” by their exposure to the Climate Change Caravan. Positive models therefore, particularly when they involve not just a new technology, but an interesting use of that technology, may be an important component of getting people to commit to a given project or lifestyle change.


The biodiesel refinery in Alberta will make 114 million litres a year of biodiesel, some of which will eventually be available to the public through retail sales at gas stations. Customers won’t have to change anything except the choice they make at the pump.For the car-share discussed here, on the other hand, using biodiesel required personal flexibility, a cooperative group process, connections to other groups, and a strong interest in the project.

Focusing exclusively on the first route to lowering GHG emissions, with its high impact and what seem to be low social and cultural requirements, implies that we can address climate change and other environmental crises through technological innovation alone (17). Given the scope of the problem and the scale of proposed solutions however, this illusion can only be maintained to the degree that we fail to consider the potentially profound secondary effects associated with large-scale solutions. In addition to the provision of alternatives at the pump, a widespread reduction in the demand for fuel –a change that is social and cultural in nature– is also necessary (18).

In this context, the cooperation, social networks and personal interest of the Calgary car-share members are directly relevant to broader social processes in which people need to adapt to new regulations or make lifestyle changes. As the philosopher Félix Guattari argued, being ‘ecological’ entails mental and social as well as environmental change since “…it is the ways of living on this planet that are in question…(19).” Biodiesel and other do-it-yourself environmental solutions may capture people’s imagination and engage their problem-solving capabilities in a way that buying biodiesel from a gas station does not. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to find ways of promoting and supporting small-scale development of environmentally innovative technologies, not just for their actual contribution to the resolution of environmental problems, but also as a means of encouraging the development and consolidation of alternative social forms.


(1) “West’s first large-scale biodiesel refinery slated for Alberta,” 20 August 2007. www.cbc.ca/canada/edmonton/story/2007/08/20/canola-ed.html?ref=rss.
(2) Biodiesel is not the same as bioethanol, which is most often produced from corn crops, and would replace regular gasoline.
(3) The European Union has committed to ensuring that 5.75% of fuel on the market is renewable by 2010. In the US, federal programs currently require or reward biodiesel consumption in certain sectors. The Canadian government is also developing legislation that will require 5% of fuel on the market by 2010 to be renewably sourced.
(4) Schnoor, J.L. “Biofuels and the environment, comment.” Environmental Science & Technology, 01 July 2006: 4042. See also www.biofuelswatch.org.
(5) See Conz, D. 2006. Citizen Technoscience: Amateur Networks in the International Grassroots Biodiesel Movement. Dissertaion Abstracts International, 2006. Barriers include legislative difficulties, taxation, and concerns raised by commercial producers about safety and standardization. In addition, some technical difficulties remain – such as the tendency of the fuel to become overly viscous in cold temperatures – and are the subject of ongoing research.
(6) Conz, D. Citizen Technoscience: Amateur Networks in the International Grassroots Biodiesel Movement. Dissertaion Abstracts International, 2006.
(7) The car share operated for over three years, between 2002 and 2005. It was disbanded after two of its members moved away from the city.
(8) Consensus decision-making is based on the principle of achieving agreement on a particular course of action through cooperative rather than aggressive communication strategies.
(9) Driving Costs: 2007 edition. Canadian Automobile Association, 2007. Pamphlet accessed Sept. 21, 2007 from www.ama.ab.ca/images/images_pdf/2007-04-27DrivingCostsBrochure2007.pdf. Given the differences between conventional car ownership and participation in a car-share, these figures are provided for the sake of contextualization rather than direct comparison.
(10) “The process of transeterification removes glycerin from the triglycerides and replaces it with alcohol used for the conversion process. This process decreases the viscosity but maintains the cetane number and the heating value.” From Canakci, M. “The potential of restaurant waste lipids as biodiesel feedstocks.” Bioresearch Technology, 98.1. (Jan. 2007): 183. This is an approach commonly used by homebrewers.
(11) According to Conz, D. Citizen Technoscience: Amateur Networks in the International Grassroots Biodiesel Movement. Dissertaion Abstracts International, 2006, this is an important book within the homebrewing movement.
(12) “Calgary dollars” and other local currencies allow community members and businesses to barter for otherwise incommensurable products and services.
(13) The car was a 1992 VW diesel Golf engine with 4-cylinders, 1.59 liter displacement, in-direct injection and a 23:1 compression ratio. Because biodiesel begins to gel close to zero degrees celsius it was not practical for use during winter months in Calgary.
(14) In a comparison of kilometers driven per tank of diesel versus biodiesel a 4-8% decrease in fuel efficiency was observed when operating on biodiesel. These observations seem to agree with performance data in Clark S.J., Wagner L, Schrock M.D., and Piennaar P.G. “Methyl and ethyl soybean esters as renewable fuels for diesel engines.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. 61.10: 1632-1638.
(15) Shaheen, S.A. and Cohen, A.P. “Worldwide car-sharing growth: An international comparison.” 2006. Accessed online at http://www.carsharing.net/library/index.html on Sept. 6, 2007. See www.carsharing.net for information on finding car-share organizations in North America.
(16) Conz, D. Citizen Technoscience: Amateur Networks in the International Grassroots Biodiesel Movement. Dissertaion Abstracts International, 2006.
(17) Chen, C. “A Technological Fix for the Environment: The Virgin Earth Challenge.” Le Panoptique. 1 September 2007. http://www.lepanoptique.net/pagearticle.php?id=11&theme=environnement
(18) Schnoor, J.L. “Biofuels and the environment, comment.” Environmental Science & Technology, 01 July 2006: 4042.
(19)Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. I. Pindar and P. Sutton, Trans. London, UK: The Athalone Press, 2000.

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