Denver Biodiesel Co-op Finds Sustainable Housing

Homeless for a time, the DBC breathes easy in its new digs.

Fuel is pumping again at the Denver Biodiesel Cooperative after six members pooled their money in an effort to save the organization, which runs one of only two biodiesel stations in the city. And while the co-op doesn't plan to turn a profit, it's paying the rent. A mural even decorates the co-op's new home at 4209 Delaware Street, painted by an on-the-road group of artists who exchanged their creative energy for thirty gallons of fuel.

"It's very important, what we're doing to improve the availability of biodiesel," says membership coordinator Isobel McGowan. The idea behind the co-op is to use "community rather than commerciality" to sell fuel, and to answer questions about biodiesel and get the word out, she says.

But the co-op has needed its share of roadside assistance during its short life. Just three months ago, the board of directors made a public plea for real estate after the co-op's original founder moved on and the DBC lost its second home in less than a year.

Founded in March 2006, the co-op was the idea of Lorance Romero, a biodiesel enthusiast who held monthly meetings on the subject at the Mercury Cafe, and Luis Manriquez, an NYU grad interested in all things sustainable.

Made from vegetable oil or tallow, biodiesel is biodegradable and non-toxic, and it decreases vehicle emissions by 50 percent or more with almost no sulfur emissions. It can also be used in almost any diesel vehicle. Drivers like it because it has a higher cetane (like octane in a gas-powered vehicle) rating than diesel and because its solvent quality and lubricity decrease the wear on older engines. Homemade biodiesel can be produced for a percentage of the cost of diesel, while commercially made biodiesel stays competitive with that fuel's going rates. Still, sales make up less than 1 percent of the market, according to the co-op.

Romero and Manriquez bought a storefront on 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street with a plan that included biodiesel pumps, an education center and a convenience store that peddled herbs and natural foods instead of Twinkies and Red Bull. But the road was rough. Construction costs far exceeded their budget, and both men were living inside the store. Tensions were high, and Romero ended up backing out.

With that partnership dissolved and the coffers empty, the co-op was forced to move in August 2006. Manriquez called a meeting to assess the membership's commitment and found that there was ample support. Even more encouraging, a friend in the diesel business offered his shop at 5511 Washington Street to the co-op rent-free, on a temporary basis.

In July, the offer expired, and the co-op was forced to move again. The timing was right for Manriquez to leave, as he had enrolled in medical school in Washington State. Although the co-op could have died at that point, seven of its members, strangers up until then, elected to buy and run it themselves. (One has since left.)

The boardmembers all have day jobs, so they split the duties between them. "We've seen how hard it is for one person to have all the responsibility of running this cooperative, so one of our main goals has been to distribute the load," says Jeff Coombe, a biodiesel-industry consultant and fuel sales manager at the co-op.

In August, they found the Delaware Street location, which they share with a diesel mechanic, secured a source of biodiesel from BioEnergy of Colorado (which produces about 15 million gallons of fuel per year made from soy and/or canola oils) and set up a website, www.biodieseldenver.com. In early September, the city approved their operating permit, and the co-op was back in the business of breaking even.

Although it's registered as a for-profit company, the DBC doesn't make any money. But making money isn't the primary goal, says co-op treasurer "Santa" Steve Patterson, who manufactures bells and moonlights as Santa Claus around Christmastime. "If you're looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, biodiesel is not the answer," he says. In fact, the only reason the co-op is a for-profit entity is because fuel producers are more comfortable working with businesses than with nonprofits, he explains.

The co-op's main business agenda is to keep overhead low so that sales and membership dues can support the organization. The fuel sells for $3.25 per gallon to members, who also pay $50 in annual dues. The co-op also offers one-day memberships to passersby for $5. Regular diesel fuel is selling for around $3.10 right now.

But the board is confident that enough people are willing to pay the premium — not just for the improved emissions, but because diesel engines seem to thrive on biodiesel. In addition, the cost of regular diesel fuel will probably continue to rise, says Patterson.

The only other biodiesel pump in Denver is run by Green Brothers Oil Company, 5335 Harrison Street, and stocked with Blue Sun Biodiesel. There are roughly twelve other stations in Colorado, according to Biodiesel.org.

The DBC currently has about seventy members and is adding three or four more per week. One of its biggest client pools is made up of landscapers, who use biodiesel in their lawnmowers, blowers, trimmers and other equipment, Patterson says. Soon the co-op plans to begin delivering fuel to farms, ranches and businesses.

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