Going green

| December 12, 2008

Most domestic biodiesel is made from soybeans, but sunflowers, rapeseed and other stocks are also used.

Biodiesel hasn’t exactly swept the country, but it’s getting known – and used. While the 75 million gallons sold in 2005 represents only .02 percent of the 34billion gallons of petroleum-based diesel sold that year, it’s three times the amount sold in 2004, according to the National Biodiesel Board.

There’s every indication that biodiesel use will continue that fast growth. Available at 600 pumps nationwide, the fuel has received more attention in the past year than ever before, from Willie Nelson’s enthusiastic marketing in Texas to Minnesota’s struggles to implement its mandated sale. Though a few drawbacks make biodiesel less than a slam-dunk choice, it appears to be the first alternative fuel to take root in the heavy-duty industry.

“Biodiesel is the fastest growing alternative fuel,” says Amber Pearson, National Biodiesel Board spokeswoman. “It could comprise 10 percent of the diesel fuel market within the next decade or so.” Citing a U.S. Department of Energy forecast, she adds that biodiesel production is likely to double in 2006.

Biodiesel is as much as 75 percent cleaner than fossil fuels. It is inherently low in sulfur, while retaining the lubricity needed for your injectors. Made of oil derived from soybeans or other agricultural products, biodiesel can be blended with petroleum diesel with little or no modification.

The fuel has been successfully used by fleet owners, including the City of Dallas and IESI, a 780-vehicle waste management company.

Biodiesel has made inroads beyond trucking, as well. Cook-Illinois, the nation’s sixth largest private school bus operator, said last year it would switch from ultra-low sulfur diesel to a biodiesel blend. The company already fuels half its 1,600-bus fleet with 20 percent soy-based biodiesel.

Perhaps the fuel’s most widely publicized marketing effort has been Willie Nelson’s biodiesel venture – aptly named BioWillie – founded with Carl Cornelius, operator of Carl’s Corner Truck Stop near Dallas, and two other partners. The fuel is sold at Carl’s and eight other Texas locations, plus two locations in California and one each in Georgia and South Carolina. If you saw Nelson on tour this year, he arrived in your city via trucks and tour buses powered by BioWillie. The singer’s company is negotiating to sell the fuel at truck stops nationwide.

More than 85 biodiesel bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2003. Of the 33 states where such bills were considered, 10 passed some version of them, says Steve Howell of MARC-IV Consulting, which represents the National Biodiesel Board.

Most measures give supply, demand or infrastructure incentives. For example, the Illinois General Assembly recently voted to make biodiesel blends of 20 percent or higher eligible for rebates and grants.

The most aggressive state action has been in Minnesota, where a law took effect Sept. 29 requiring that all diesel sold in the state contain 2 percent biodiesel. By November, gelling problems had cropped up in Minnesota’s cold climate, even among experienced truckers using seasonal blends, says John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association.

Biodiesel is not inherently prone to gelling, and it can be blended to winter-friendly specifications, Hausladen says. The Minnesota problem, he says, occurred because some of the fuel, produced at three different plants, was off-spec. The gelling culprit, Hausladen says, was glycerol, commercially known as glycerine, a syrupy liquid byproduct of processed vegetable oils.

Thanks in part to lobbying by Hausladen’s association, the Minnesota law was suspended for nearly two months but went back into effect Feb. 10. The state is trying to put together a quality assurance plan that will stem such problems, Hausladen says.

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