The Satya Interview
with Brent “Arrow” Baker
Photo by Junko Otsuki
In 1995, after spending most
of his money traveling across the country as a fire-eater with a
politically-oriented traveling circus, Brent “Arrow” Baker was introduced to Sarah Lewison, who had just completed the first cross-country
trip in a biodiesel-fueled cargo van. Ever since, he has made it his
mission to educate people about this renewable fuel. Since 2003, Arrow
has spread the word on alternative forms of energy by driving a 35-foot
school bus that runs on vegetable oil and solar power around the country.
Utilizing his environmental and social justice activism, Baker recently founded
Tri-State Biodiesel, an enterprise aimed at transforming NYC’s restaurant
grease into renewable energy. With hundreds of restaurants signed up for their
free pick-up service and plans in the works for a plant to convert the waste
into biodiesel, Tri-State Biodiesel will be offering renewable fuel to New York’s
truck and bus fleets and distributing it as heating oil, by the end of the year.
Catherine Clyne had a chance to talk with Brent “Arrow” Baker about
activism, grease and the rosy future of biodiesel.
I understand part of the plan is to set up a biodiesel plant here in
What’s the story with that?
That’s right. We’re also looking at sites in the South Bronx, but
our preference is to be in Brooklyn—the Red Hook Navy yard area. That’s
the closest area to a lot of our restaurants, feedstock and our end-users. Part
of our plan is to try to minimize the amount of transportation required in the
collection and production of biodiesel.
When you say ‘end-users,’ primarily who will be your clients?
Right now we’re talking to a number of parties, including local diesel
and biodiesel distributors, national distributors, fleet managers and people
that manage buildings for heating oil. We’re exploring several ways of
getting the fuel out there.
Is there going to be a pump that people can drive up to and fill ’er
That’s not really the fundamental focus. Private owners of diesel vehicles
comprise a small amount of actual diesel usage. The majority of diesel fuel is
used on a commercial basis or as heating oil. So you concentrate on getting it
to fleets, rather than getting it to a pump.
That said, we are committed to establishing a pump either at an existing station
or at a proposed alternative fuel station another group is working on.
What are some of the benefits of producing and using biodiesel in an urban area?
One great advantage of biodiesel fuel is that it is much less carcinogenic and
less toxic than diesel fuel exhaust. Part of our mission is to try to concentrate
the sales of our fuel in the most emissions-distressed areas of our city, so
that we can maximize the emissions health benefits where they’re needed
Speaking of emissions-distressed areas, the South Bronx Environmental Health
and Policy Study recently released findings from a study done with NYU about
there being a 17 percent asthma rate among children in the South Bronx, twice
the city average and three times the national average.
That’s right. There’s very high asthma rates in the South Bronx,
Sunset Park and some of our other industrial areas, neighborhoods with rates
as high as one in four kids. I don’t think the answer is getting rid of
industry, but cleaning it up. And Tri-State Biodiesel really hopes to be a part
of that effort.
How do you pitch this idea to prospective partners and restaurants?
This is a new industry that has the potential to clean up the air quality in
our city and make our life better. In order for it to be successful, we need
the partnership of mom and pop and chain restaurants. We have several hundred
signed up with our waste collection service and are extremely committed to providing
them with the best, most professional service they’ve ever experienced.
We offer to pick up their grease free of charge because we are able to add value
to what is otherwise a waste product.
Why do you think biodiesel is not more widely available today?
Actually, I’m really excited about how quickly this has gone from an experimental
idea in a couple of universities, to a grassroots movement, and now to an industry
that’s tripled its capacity over the last year and will probably triple
again in the next year.
This is an idea whose time has come. It’s the best alternative fuel that’s
available today. I don’t mean to dodge your question, I just don’t
agree with the premise at all. I’ve been promoting biodiesel for 10 years.
For the first eight, I seldom talked to anyone who had heard of such a crazy
idea. In the last two or three years, that’s changed completely. Now I
seldom speak to someone about biodiesel who hasn’t heard of it. So we’ve
seen a real explosion in consciousness. It’s been led by energized environmental
and farmers’ movements that came together from left and right to do the
Can you tell me a little more about the farmers’ movement?
The biodiesel industry has basically been driven by American soy bean farmers—the
majority of biodiesel produced in America is produced from virgin soy bean oil.
The farmers have really been a central catalyst creating successful lobby groups
and creating the National Biodiesel Board, the industry’s trade organization
which promotes biodiesel and gets the consciousness and political awareness out
there. So it’s been a very interesting progression of two sort of different
approaches that have been complimentary.
Some people have the misunderstanding that biodiesel involves cooking and adapting
their engines to run on it. Is that still the case?
There’s a lot of confusion around the difference between biodiesel and
straight vegetable oil. Burning vegetable oil that hasn’t been altered
requires alteration to the vehicle; whereas biodiesel has been chemically altered
so that the diesel vehicle does not need to be altered. That’s the basic
So buses, trucks and diesel engine users could just pull up to the pump and use
biodiesel without altering their vehicle?
That is correct. If you have a diesel vehicle, you can drive up, put biodiesel
in, and drive away.
Do you see any conflicts in being both an activist and a business person?
[Laughs.] Of course there can be conflict between being an entrepreneur and an
activist. But I don’t think that has to be the case, and I’ve been
lucky enough to find an area of entrepreneurship that can be complimented by
activism. I’ve found a way to walk the line. It’s important for activists
to look at entrepreneurship as a means for implementing ideas that have come
out of the activist community. There is a lot of opportunity right now to create
renewable energy projects that can actually be both profitable and have a positive
social impact. That’s the key—for those two things to go hand in
Case in point. What would happen to the restaurant grease normally if it weren’t
picked up for conversion into biodiesel in the future?
The restaurants are legally bound to dispose of their grease with a licensed
waste removal carrier of which there are several in the New York area. They generally
sell it to the pet food or the chemical industries as glycerin. It is used as
a supplement in animal feed or as a component in things like shampoos and hand
lotions. We’ve seen from our research that a fair amount of restaurants
are actually just discarding the stuff and it is going into landfills, becoming
a problem for waste treatment or landfill facilities. We’re trying to take
this waste and fully utilize it in a way that’s beneficial for the environment.
Do you have some statistics on how biodiesel is good for the environment, as
opposed to fossil fuels?
There is no new carbon created in its production or manufacturing. The big driver
of global warming, of course, is greenhouse gases and the carbon creation that
comes from digging up fossil fuels and burning them. So that’s very important.
Also, with biodiesel, you have 100 percent reduction of sulfur, one of the major
components of acid rain. You have almost a 70 percent reduction of hydrocarbons,
50 percent reduction of carbon monoxide, over 50 percent reduction of fine particulate
matter, and almost 78 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. So this is much, much
better for the environment than petroleum and, frankly, there’s no other
alternative fuel that comes close to those kinds of emissions reductions. It’s
something that can be implemented today with the existing infrastructure and
existing engines, but provides a big step forward towards sustainability and
renewability. Of course there’s no magic bullet, no single thing that’s
going to save us from global warming or create a sustainable society. But biodiesel
is a great way to get a little closer. We’re advocating that as well as
conservation, more efficient vehicles, mass transit, and continued development
of other alternative fuels and energy sources.
So this time next year, if I’m walking around Red Hook or the South Bronx—wherever
the production plant is—what am I going to be smelling?
Cleaner air. The emissions out the tailpipe are sometimes compared to a light
Anything you’d like to add?
I think we’re in a period of a real resurgence of practical applications
of ecology. It’s not just biodiesel—there are people putting in living
roofs, solar power and wind power companies. I’m really looking forward
to a green New York City in the next decade that’s going to be an example
of an ecological city for the world.
To learn more, visit www.tristatebiodiesel.com.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.