Ed O'Donnell is hard to categorize. He's well-known locally as a vintage Volkswagen mechanic and for being an avid proponent of using vegetable oil as an alternative to big oil. In 2001, O'Donnell purchased a plot of land somewhere outside the city limits; there, he maintained an off-the-grid lifestyle by scavenging nearly everything he needed to build and power his home. O'Donnell spoke with the Alibi about repurposing discarded items, wind-generated electricity and the current state of the vegetable oil-powered vehicle phenomenon.
How would an apocalyptic scenario affect an off-the-grid lifestyle?
As far as sustainability goes, as civilization goes to hell, there's nothing left to scrounge. To some extent you're relying on other people's waste and discarded items, and if no one is producing stuff and no one is buying stuff, then no one is throwing anything away either. There's no going around the back of a building and finding [wooden] pallets to burn or vegetable oil for fuel. That I have stockpiled. Right now, I have over two years supply of vegetable oil. ... at my current needs.
What are you driving nowadays?
I'm actually back to my Rabbit truck I used to deliver Alibis in. I also built a 34-foot-long tow truck that's veggie-powered and gets 18 miles to the gallon—while weighing 18,000 pounds and towing two vehicles. For the vehicle's size, that's phenomenal. With the Rabbit truck, I went with a 1.6 turbo-diesel, and it's pulling a true 55 miles per gallon highway, and it's even fast. I drove to Taos and used less than three gallons of fuel. This is a 33-year-old car with a 30-year-old engine that gets better mileage than anything you can currently buy new in the United States. My older engine running on vegetable oil puts out less emissions than a new car [does] on pumped diesel. It burns cleaner than petroleum diesel.
Do you procure your oil though arrangements with restaurants?
Yes. And one thing I have learned is that for travel, it's getting harder actually to get your hands on the oil. It used to be that the oil companies charged per gallon to remove it, but now they're offering to take it for free—to try to keep people like me from getting their hands on it. The pumping companies tried at one point to sell it as a fuel, but it wasn't clean enough; it wasn't consistent. It's vegetable oil but then there's also all the animal fat from the food, and you're not going to get the animal fat thin enough to spray through a fuel injector. I settle it. Animal fat will settle eventually, somewhere between three weeks and three months. If it's below 40 degrees however, it will separate overnight, so I generally collect all winter and stockpile my fuel for the summer when I do most of my traveling. So right now I'm in the filtration stage. I've got 50 gallons of clean and 150 gallons of dirty.
As far as sustainability goes, as civilization goes to hell, there’s nothing left to scrounge. To some extent you’re relying on other people’s waste and discarded items, and if no one is producing stuff and no one is buying stuff, then no one is throwing anything away either.
Why power your country house with a wind turbine?
Going off the grid was something I had in the works for a long time, and actually the wind generator plan I had drawn up when I was 10. It's a piece of pipe with bearings pressed in, and then a building exhaust fan on one end, a swamp-cooler pulley on the other, a VW alternator run by the swamp-cooler pulley and a washing machine lid as a directional vane. This is all up on a 20-foot-pole. It held together for five years without having any problems. Bearings are less than 10 bucks, so cost of maintenance is fairly minimal. The new generating unit that replaced the original alternator is a brushless DC motor that doesn't really have any wear items, so that's completely maintenance-free; it's leftover Sandia Labs equipment, a servo from some kind of robotic arm.
Could you store the electricity?
Oh, yeah. I had a bank of deep-cycle batteries—again this was all used stuff—and a couple of small solar panels for backup on non-windy days. For heat, I used passive solar and a wood stove. At the rate people dump yard debris out on the mesa, I never had to go more than half a mile to find firewood. You just go half a mile, turn down a side street and hey, there's a cut-up tree—especially in Rio Rancho. ... The garden center there at the time would tell people to plant oak trees; they would tell them they needed to water them for about six months 'til they take. Well, if you're 400 feet from water, an oak tree's never going to take. They'd struggle for a couple of years, then they'd cut it down and dump it out on the mesa. Decent firewood.
What about water?
It was 600 to 800 feet to water, so farming is not really viable out there. I had straight-up rainwater harvesting off the roof into a series of food grade 55 gallon drums. I didn't use it for drinking water—because I didn't have an adequate filtration system—but for wash water and animal water, it worked great.
Did you draw up the plans for your compost toilet?
No, there's a book called The Humanure Handbook, which will give you all the ins and outs of it. It's basically a bucket toilet with sawdust in it. Then there's a pit in the ground with a window to heat it. Then I would rotate buckets that heat would kill any possible pathogens. ... I mean The Humanure Handbook suggests basically that you go vegetarian and then use your compost to grow your own food. I have no desire to grow food out of my own poop. My goal was to make a safe, neutral end product that could be buried. That was my only goal.
What's the best part of living off-the-grid?
I cut my bills to next to zero: cell phone and car insurance. And it's quiet. That's not forever. Eventually they'll turn that into subdivisions.
Aside from lowering your bills, were you trying to avoid consuming fossil fuels?
It is a benefit, but it's more the independence and low cost than anything. This was somewhere for me to move and, at the same time, cut my bills. Eventually I did save enough to buy an actual house in town, but that wasn't the plan at the time. I had no plans of going on-grid again, but right now that's what I'm doing.
Any plans to take your city house off-grid?
Converting an existing house with infrastructure doesn't really make any sense. It will never pay for itself. Even a grid intertie system is so costly, the solar panels will never pay for themselves as far as not purchasing mass-produced electricity. Wind—especially out here—is more bang for your buck as far as how much current you can produce versus initial cost. It's better to have wind with a solar backup. For an out-building, I would do it actually, for shop lighting and stuff. To generate enough to run a 220 welder? No, it's too involved. You're talking $30,000 to $40,000 in panels and batteries, then you use something like a welder and it sucks your entire electric supply dead in a matter of hours.
Do you even buy commercial gas anymore?
I do have my old buses that I like to drive, but in the end, I don't like to pay for fuel. I have a 1962 VW bus I just put on the road last week, and I drove it for four or five days until it needed gas; then I just parked it and went back to the veggie-powered Rabbit.