You Want Fries With Your Fare?

Repurposed oil fuels Boise’s newest taxi service


Cabbies everywhere gripe about the rising price of gas--the tool of their trade. That's part of why the founder of Boise's newest cab company says he's looking to ditch not only gas, but conventional fuel entirely--as in fossil fuels, solar, hydrogen, even human locomotion. Instead, ReCab will be powered by gallons of slippery fryer oil.

"What we're trying to do is take a local commodity, waste vegetable oil, and do something for our community with it," said James Orr, who along with Jennifer Orr (no relation), owns ReCab.

A graduate of the engineering program at Boise State University, Orr rebuilt what he calls "ReCab 1" from a used 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300SD, which now runs on oil once used to cook french fries and other foods. ReCab 1 sports leather seats and power windows, and could easily be mistaken for Orr's personal vehicle. The big difference, he said, is in the fuel and expense.

"It's just a whole new experience, as opposed to taking a cab ride home in a Ford Taurus," Orr said.

He has already secured his taxi driver's license from the city of Boise, and Orr hopes to have his fleet of one taking fares sooner than later.

"I want to start the beginning of April," he said. "We have a couple more stairs to climb. We're finishing up our insurance and signage, just the legalities of starting a taxi cab company."

By ditching fossil fuels in favor of used vegetable oil, ReCab's owners say they'll put less ozone-damaging carbon into the air.

"We're also recycling old cars, which is a huge carbon offset," said Orr. "We're recycling vegetable oil and reinvesting it into our community. So that's where the name 'ReCab' came from, because everything we're doing, we're repurposing."

Though pure vegetable oil can be burned in a diesel engine, the federal Environmental Protection Agency only recognizes a purified form called "biodiesel" for use in commercial combustion engines. Among the handful of Pacific Northwest distributors is Portland-based SeQuential Pacific Biodiesel, producing just less than 6 million gallons of biodiesel each year.

"Pure biodiesel offers up to 78 percent fewer carbon emissions than regular diesel. It's much cleaner for the environment," Rachel Shaver, SeQuential marketing manager, told Boise Weekly.

Simply put, SeQuential collects used cooking oil from more than 7,000 restaurants, creating a fuel alternative for SeQuential's customers, including large commercial fleets and even personal vehicles.

"In terms of fuel efficiency, it's roughly equivalent to diesel," said Shaver. "If you're looking for a cleaner-burning fuel that's sustainably made, it's a very good option."

ReCab 1's five-cylinder engine will achieve 24 mpg, according to Orr, but when the tank hits "empty," he won't pull into the nearest gas station. Instead, he'll turn to his own private fuel source--used vegetable oil, which is collected by local oil recycler Boise Bio, shipped to SeQuential for repurposing and sent back to Orr's Boise operation as biodiesel.

Gabe Rowland, owner of Boise Bio, told BW that his company collects 2,500 gallons of waste oil each month from 60-70 restaurants in the Treasure Valley.

"We offer [the restaurants] a 140-gallon lockable container for used cooking oil," said Rowland. "And that usually resides right outside the restaurants in their garbage or dumping areas."

Rowland plans to ship the used oil to SeQuential in order to process it into biodiesel before it returns to Boise to power ReCab. Rowland told BW the partnership between Boise Bio and ReCab will be one of only a few Boise outlets for the product.

"This is a really killer idea that [ReCab] couldn't do on their own, and I couldn't do on my own," Rowland said. "It's a great example of companies teaming up for a mutual benefit."

But while a gallon of fry oil is cheaper than a gallon of gasoline, ReCab will have to dedicate a portion of its revenue to federal and state road taxes. According to Don Williams, interim tax policy specialist of motor fuels with the Idaho State Tax Commission, motor fuel not taxed at the pump is taxed later.

"The motor fuel tax is 25 cents per gallon, whether it's gas or diesel. If you're using something other than gas or diesel ... you'd have to pay 25 cents per gallon on it," said Williams.

As a source-provider, Boise Fry Co. co-owner Blake Lingle agreed to help fuel ReCab with waste oil from his Boise restaurants, which together use approximately 300 gallons of oil per month. Lingle told Boise Weekly that it was a challenge for him to get rid of his used oil in the past.

"When we started out four years ago, there weren't a lot of people in that [oil reuse] business," said Lingle. "So we were just happy to get rid of it. It was more of a burden for us."

As waste oil has evolved into a 21st century commodity, other companies have already approached Lingle to help rid him of his old fry oil. Lingle said oil recyclers like Boise Bio generally pay between $1.50-$2 per gallon--what those in the biofuels business call a "rebate." But ReCab offers Boise Fry Co. mobile advertising in exchange for fuel.

"At the end of the day, as we were crunching the numbers, we felt that the advertising was worth not getting the rebate," said Lingle

Once up and running, ReCab will whisk Boiseans about the valley while emitting smells of French fries from its tailpipe. More importantly, Orr said ReCab will be pushing out less pollution than its competitors.

According to figures from the EPA, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 423 grams of CO2 per mile, 5.1 metric tons per year. While biodiesel has a slightly lower carbon content per gallon--5.69 pounds per gallon, compared with 6.15 pounds per gallon with conventional diesel--the U.S. Department of Energy's data sheet on alternative fuels states that biodiesel's carbon output is "offset by the CO2 captured by the plants from which biodiesel is produced."

Where biodiesel really shines, though, is reducing emissions of other greenhouse gases: hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, specifically.

According to DOE, burning high-grade biodiesel--B100--represents a nearly 70 percent reduction in hydrocarbons and 40 percent less carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Even B20, with a much lower mix of biofuel-to-diesel, yields good results: 21 percent less emission of hydrocarbons, 11 percent less carbon monoxide and 10 percent less particulate matter.

Orr said he thinks ReCab can carve out a niche market, catering to customers conscious of the environment and supportive of local business.

"We're repurposing as much as we can, and trying to keep everything on a local emphasis," he said. "We're trying to make sure that we're promoting those who are supporting us, that we're giving the people who will use our cab an experience unlike all the other taxicabs."

Orr told BW an official kick-off event is slated for Friday, April 26, at The Linen Building. And if Orr gets a whiff of the sweet smell of success, he expects to roll out three to four more ReCabs in the near future.

Though he's new to the taxicab business, Orr remains confident that his converted four-door sedan will be a hit when it hits the streets.

"There are a lot of independent cab drivers in Boise," he said. "We're not looking to take a massive market share out of their business; what we're trying to do is offset some of the CO2 that's been put in the atmosphere, and offer a fantastic product with great drivers and a fantastic ride."