Pumped up about cleaner fuel
Biodiesel is all around us -- in our ferries, buses, garbage trucks, passenger cars, tractors, Army trucks, sailboats and more -- yet surveys show that only one in four people knows about this alternative, non-toxic fuel made from vegetable oil.
But biodiesel is poised for liftoff, and more people are discovering its benefits. About 30 million gallons of biodiesel was produced and used in the United States last year -- a sixfold increase in just five years.
The fuel runs in diesel engines but emits 78 percent less carbon dioxide, nearly 50 percent fewer particulates and 80 percent to 90 percent less of compounds linked to cancer than diesel, and fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline. (Engines using it do emit more nitrogen oxide, a smog-forming component.)
(See the original article for a graphic explaining biodiesel, its benefits and its uses.)
For the first time, an American company has made a car -- the 2005 Jeep Liberty -- designed to run on a 5 percent blend of biodiesel (B5). John Deere said it will start shipping all of its tractors and combines to customers filled with B2, a 2 percent biodiesel blend.
Country singer Willie Nelson, who uses biodiesel in his tour buses, recently announced a new company to make and sell "BioWillie" fuel to truck stops across the nation.
Even President Bush has weighed in, with a simple "I like biodiesel," while on the campaign trail in Iowa.
Five years ago, biodiesel was virtually unused in Washington -- this year more than a million gallons will be burned.
The wholesaler that imports nearly all of the state's biodiesel, Pacific Northwest Energy Co. and SC Fuels in Tacoma, began selling biodiesel in January 2004. Now they're bringing in more than 1.5 million gallons of pure biodiesel, B100, a year.
"Washington is probably one of the largest users in the country," said Vince "biovinny" McBroom, the commercial sales manager. "We're at least in the top five, if not the top two."
Though biodiesel isn't currently made in Washington, that's about to change. Experts say the state could produce and refine 5 million to 8 million gallons within five years.
Interest in a biodiesel industry in Washington state is producing cooperation across the political aisle. The state's first biodiesel plant is about to start operating, and several other groups hope to get crops from Washington fields into our tanks.
Plans and passion abound, but so do risks and uncertainties.
Biodiesel isn't the solution to a waning supply of fossil fuels but an appealing part of the solution. There simply isn't enough of it.
"The Department of Energy estimates that biodiesel could replace 10 percent of the diesel market in the U.S.," said Jenna Higgins, a spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board. "Biodiesel is not a replacement for petroleum diesel. It's another tool in the box to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and clean up emissions."
About 60 billion gallons of diesel is used annually in the United States, a billion of that in Washington state. Current biodiesel production capacity is estimated at about 150 million gallons a year, with a possible doubling within 12 to 18 months.
There is a huge potential market for biodiesel -- about 95 percent of freight, through trucking, railroads and shipping, is moved with diesel engines.
In Europe, where fuel prices favor diesel-powered vehicles, more than 40 percent of passenger cars are fuel-efficient diesel ones, some of which get 65 miles per gallon or more. Estimates suggest that 3 percent or less of passenger cars in the United States -- or about 4 million of more than 135 million registered run on diesel.
Part of the problem has been diesel's image -- acrid smell, dark exhaust cloud, toxic emissions and rumbling engine performance. That's improved somewhat over time, but biodiesel is a different creature altogether. Its odor is often compared with stir fry or popcorn, and it usually makes diesel engines run smoother, while acting as an engine lubricant and cleaner. It's also not as volatile as gas or diesel.
The biggest hurdle to its widespread use is probably price. For the individual consumer, pure biodiesel costs $3.30 to $3.50 per gallon. Compared with five years ago when the price tag was about $5 a gallon, it's become more affordable.
Many late-model diesel vehicles get 40-plus mpg, making the cost per mile for using biodiesel close to that for many gasoline-powered vehicles.
But the price will likely drop again soon. A two-year federal tax credit began on Jan. 1. It gives blenders a penny a gallon for every 1 percent of biodiesel they distribute, up to $.99 for B99, but it's not clear how that would affect B100 users.
Many expect that credit to result in a price reduction for the consumer, making biodiesel more attractive. (At the same time, Bush's latest budget proposal calls for a halving of federal biodiesel subsidies, which could affect the price, too.)
Government at the wheel
Though Seattle has an enthusiastic core of biodiesel users in personal cars, it's government that's been driving the demand for biodiesel.
"The biggest users are centrally fueled fleets -- like city bus systems, school districts, military bases, national parks and city fleets, "said Higgins, from the National Biodiesel Board, funded largely by soybean farmers and fuel suppliers.
Besides lower prices for buying fuel in huge quantities, another reason for high institutional demand is government policy. Besides the new tax incentive, the 1992 Energy Policy Act, designed to decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil, requires federal and state fleets to purchase alternative fuel vehicles. And several executive orders signed by President Clinton require federal agencies to reduce petroleum use or replace some of it with alternative fuels.
The military is another huge biodiesel customer. Naval Station Everett was an early adopter, starting its buses and heavy equipment on a B20 blend four years ago.
"The fuel system is just as clean as a whistle. It gets rid of all of the things that have built up over the years," said Gary Passmore, transportation specialist for the station.
King County Metro Transit is running 338 buses of 1,400 on a B5 blend and hopes to expand the fuel to its entire fleet sometime next year, fleet manager Jim Boon said.
King County Executive Ron Sims said Metro's adoption of biodiesel likely will spur other transit agencies around the country to try it.
"How can we as a government reduce global-warming impacts? This was easy. This was a no-brainer for us," Sims said.
The biggest user here is Washington State Ferries, which began a pilot project last summer to run three ferries on B20 on the Seattle-Vashon-Southworth route. But they began having problems with clogged fuel filters and removed the fuel in December.
"We are looking very hard for an answer," said Tina Stotz, environmental program manager for the ferries. "We would love to have the biodiesel up by the end of February."
The fuel is paid for by Seattle City Light as part of a city effort to reduce and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
The biodiesel used here is almost all soy-based oil imported from the Midwest, but biodiesel enthusiasts are working hard to change that.
A few businesses such as Earthwise Excavation choose biodiesel for its environmental benefits. The Maltby Co. uses more than 18,000 gallons of B100 in its bulldozers, dump trucks and other earthmoving equipment. Albert Postema, president of the company said it helps the business stand out in a crowded field.
"We feel that businesses can do a large leadership role in sustainability," Postema said. "And if an excavation company can do that, the sky's the limit." And they just bought a small processor to make their own and plan to create a co-op, Barter Biodiesel, in which people bring in waste grease and get back biodiesel. So far, 65 people have signed up.
Others are getting into the business of making biodiesel.
At a warehouse in Sodo, John Plaza is about to open Seattle Biodiesel, the first plant in Washington to make the fuel. Plaza, an airline pilot, feels good about the gamble he's taking on an industry in its infancy.
"The more I find out about biodiesel, the more I feel that it offers our country, the planet and our species as a whole a better option than what we've been faced with," he said.
With investors such as Sabyr Contractors Inc., and the founder of Loudeye Corp., Plaza plans to produce his first test batch of biodiesel on Monday in his 6,500-square-foot plant. He's aiming to make 1.5 million gallons of biodiesel a year and have the capacity to produce up to 5 million gallons annually if that's ever needed. Already, three of his 12 massive steel tanks, salvaged from the Rainier Brewery, are filled with soybean oil from Smucker's, the jam maker.
Plaza, in partnership with a California company, is making and selling an industrial biodiesel processor, which has a patent pending.
He's not alone.
Baker Commodies, Inc., a national company that runs rendering plants for slaughterhouse remnants, is looking into making biodiesel, too. They also recycle used cooking oil and restaurant grease at a Tukwila facility. Fred Wellons, director of research and development, said Baker is looking for 3 to 5 acres in the Seattle area to build a 10-million gallon biodiesel plant.
"It's all biodegradable, so it's not like you have a petroleum plant. It's edible fat," he said.
About 9 million gallons of waste grease and oil is produced in Western Washington, according to Climate Solutions, a non-profit group. If every drop of it was made into biodiesel, it's nearly enough to run the state ferry system for a year.
Like Seattle Biodiesel, Baker commodities would be interested in state-grown crops for biodiesel.
The problem is that, right now, they don't exist.
From field to pump
Biodiesel can be made from numerous crops, but some of the best are oilseeds such as canola, mustard and rapeseed. High in oil content, such plants require little water or fertilizer, and are well suited to Washington's dryland farming as a rotation crop. But last year, only 8,200 of Washington's farm acres were planted in any of those crops -- a paltry number compared to the 2.5 million acres in grain.
"Everybody has gotten the cart in front of the horse," says Jim Armstrong, director of legislative and public affairs for the Spokane Conservation District. "What's happened in Washington is talk about big biodiesel facilities and distribution. But none of it matters unless we can get the farmers to grow the feed stock."
There are several hurdles to convincing farmers it's a good idea. The first is that Washington doesn't have its own industrial oil crusher, a giant screw press that extracts the oil. The closest crushers are in Great Falls, Mont., and Alberta. The costs of shipping the crops there and back has made it too costly to produce biodiesel.
Another issue is that the oil itself is of low value. Farmers need a primary market for the meal, or crush, of the crops -- for animal feed, fertilizer, fumigants, biopesticides and biolubricants. Then they could sell the oil as a secondary product, deriving two income streams from the same crop.
The make-or-break price for growers is around 14 to 15 cents a pound for oilseeds, which, without other markets, would make the oil about $3.45 a gallon before it's even made into biodiesel, Armstrong said.
There are at least two efforts to build crushers here. American Premix Technologies is building a small crusher in Quincy, near Ephrata, with plans for a second crusher in Creston and a third at a future location. They plan to grow canola, crush it for animal feed and sell the oil for biolubricants or biodiesel, said Brad Lyons, vice president of marketing for the company. In the future, American Premix might make its own biodiesel.
A consortium of six agricultural cooperatives in Spokane County has formed Pacific Bio LLC to operate a crusher to process up to 30,000 acres of their own oilseeds. They hope to plant oilseed crops next year and get into biodiesel production later.
Having home-grown oil and local processors should lower the cost of biodiesel. "We should be able to beat the price of Midwestern biodiesel, because we don't have to transport it here," said Tim Stearns, a senior energy analyst with the state government's Community Trade and Economic Development division.
It also has the dual benefit of stimulating rural economic development. "We are hoping to diversify the agricultural sector," Stearns said.
He also sees a market for exporting biodiesel knowledge. "If we get good at it, there's the whole rest of the world that's going to need expertise and advice," he said. "We can either be driving the steamroller, or we can be driven over by it."
Armstrong thinks the momentum for home-grown biodiesel is unstoppable in Washington.
"Everybody we've talked to thinks this is the neatest thing since sliced bread," he said. "Everybody wants to make it work."
WASHINGTON LAWMAKERS WEIGH IN
# Rep. Brian Sullivan, a biodiesel champion, has introduced a bill (HB1645) to eliminate the state's road fuel tax of 28 cents a gallon for school buses that switch to biodiesel (B20 or higher blend, or natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas). About 9,200 school buses burn more than 11 million gallons of toxic diesel a year in Washington.
# Rep. Janéa Holmquist is sponsoring a bill (HB1826) to require that all non-diesel motor fuel contain at least 10 percent ethanol and all diesel motor fuel have at least 2 percent biodiesel.
# Last year, a package of four bills to encourage biodiesel (and ethanol) became law, including an exemption in the state and local sales and use taxes for biodiesel makers here. Another of the bills created pilot projects for two school districts to run buses on biodiesel. All expire in 2009.
BIODIESEL AND BOATS
Biodiesel isn't just for cars and freight haulers. It can also be used in boat engines. So far, that's meant mostly sailboats with small tanks.
Run by the Elliott family, Elliott Bay fuel dock sells B100, and Shilshole Bay fuel dock sells B20.
Their biodiesel sales are small, but grow by about 75 percent every year.
Mike Elliott said between 100 and 200 people use biodiesel at Shilshole Bay. All the feedback has been positive, especially from a woman who couldn't previously join her husband on their sailboat because she was sickened by diesel fumes.
His son, Eric Elliott, who manages the Elliott Bay location, said: "We hardly make any money on it, but it's something that we really believe in."
PUSHING FOR 'BREATHABLE' BUSES
Another local champion of biodiesel is the recently formed Breathable Bus Coalition, which wants to get school buses to switch from diesel to biodiesel blends.
"There are studies testing air quality outside and inside the bus that show there can be high levels of diesel exhaust inside the bus," said Linda Graham, recently departed director of the Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition. "And diesel exhaust is highly toxic. It has a lot of contaminants in it -- and some of them are known or suspected carcinogens."
At its last meeting, the Breathable Bus Coalition, founded by environmental educator Lyle Rudensey, and Ballard High School teacher Noam Gundle, attracted about 100 people, including concerned parents.
The group has made a presentation before the Seattle School Board, but know that the higher cost is a hard sell. They also write letters to legislators in support of a legislative proposal to eliminate the state's 28-cent-a-gallon road tax for school buses.
"Biodiesel can reduce the exposure of kids and people to toxic substances on the bus every day," Gundle said. "It costs more to treat the diseases than to fix the problem."
It smells like popcorn -- and it's catching on
(Sidebar -- also by Kriston Dizon. original)
Amy Queen gets 50 miles a gallon from a car whose exhaust smells like popcorn or stir-fry or french fries, depending on the nose that's sniffing.
What powers Queen's 2000 diesel Jetta? Biodiesel, the alternative, clean-burning -- and increasingly popular -- fuel made from vegetable oil.
"Most people don't think they can actually do it, and they think it's expensive," said Queen, 44. "When they see someone as regular as me using biodiesel, they know it's easy."
It is expensive -- retailing for about $3.50 a gallon for pure biodiesel, or B100. And it's only available at a handful of stations in the area.
But despite the hurdles, a lot of people in the Seattle metro area love biodiesel, which is biodegradable, renewable, virtually non-toxic and runs in any blend in a diesel engine. In the past few years, it's moved solidly from the fringe to the mainstream, adopted by a small group of enthusiastic pioneers who preach its gospel wherever they go.
"It's so much cleaner. It's better for the environment. It's better for the engines of the car. It's better for the health of the people. And it contributes to the economy," said Ravi Mikkelsen, head of the French Fry Fuel Fools, a University of Washington student group that's collecting used cooking oil and grease on and around campus and turning it into biodiesel.
It's difficult to quantify the Seattle area's individual users versus other areas, but many here are convinced that, at a minimum, the Seattle area has the highest number of pure biodiesel -- B100 -- users in the country. (Partially, that's because California's strict emissions laws don't allow the sale of diesel passenger cars there.)
Biodiesel users say the fuel isn't just carbon neutral and far less polluting in most emissions, but they also point to its homegrown role in improving national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil. They like that it can reduce the trade deficit, create jobs here and support American farmers.
Progressive trends are nothing new to Seattleites, many of whom tend to shop locally, buy organic produce, think about sustainability and try to live by 'green' principles, even if it dents their pocketbook. Biodiesel used to be associated with back-to-the-land hippies whipping up a batch of home-brewed fuel for the family camper. Now, biodiesel attracts doctors, educators, environmentalists and more.
Like others, Queen, a real estate agent and mother of two, switched to biodiesel because of the Iraq war. "The day the war started was the day I decided to sell my Subaru Outback wagon," she said. "I felt like I was tithing special interests every time I went to the gas pump."
Queen, who now fills up once every two weeks instead of weekly, said at least three other real estate agents out of 80 in her Lake Realty office also drive on biodiesel. She helped persuade her sister in Spokane to buy a turbo direct injection (TDI) diesel car, even though it's hard to find biodiesel there.
Like the vast majority of locals, Queen gets her biodiesel at Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks in Ballard. (See his Web site)
When Dan Freeman started selling B100 three years ago, he had about 15 customers, who were all members of the same car club. He now sells 130,000 gallons annually to about 800 biodiesel customers, most of whom drive Volkswagen TDIs.
Locally, biodiesel fans have driven up sales of TDIs, including the Golf, Beetle, Jetta, Passat and Touareg. Every month, Carter Motors in Ballard sells about 20 TDIs, which cost about $700 to $1,500 more than the gas model. "We literally sell as many as we can get. We're not allocated as many as we need," said Carter sales associate John Sylvester.
About half of their TDI customers are interested in biodiesel, Sylvester said. That interest has also kept the market hot for used diesel cars. (Volkswagen USA says using biodiesel doesn't void the warranty on their vehicles, but if they attribute a problem to biodiesel, they won't cover that specific work.)
Often, TDI customers trumpet their biodiesel allegiance with bumper stickers, such as, "Biodiesel: fuel for the revolution," and "Biodiesel: no war required."
In fact, opposition to the Iraq war gave a boost to Dr. Dan's business. After the conflict began in 2003, Freeman's phone rang off the hook with inquiries about how to get off oil.
"It's kind of embarrassing, because I profited from the war," Freeman says, pausing. "Well, I shouldn't say I profited," he continues, "because I have yet to make any money."
To pay the bills, Freeman also repairs cars. But the lack of profit isn't stopping him from expanding. He plans to open up to four more pumps for the fuel -- one at a coffee shop on Roosevelt Avenue and in Snohomish, Vashon Island and Bellingham.
"It can be a tremendous boon for our economy, ecology and quality of life," said Freeman, who's been interested in alternative fuels since he was a child. "It's a cultural phenomenon. It's a grass-roots effort."
Freeman's customers set up an account and pre-purchase the soybean biodiesel. Those who pre-pay for more than 100 gallons get a discount off the $3.47 per gallon price.
But most say the cost is offset by the high mileage they get, even though biodiesel is slightly less efficient then diesel.
For Marcia David, who gets about 44 mpg on the freeway and 40 mph in town on biodiesel in her yellow Beetle TDI, using the fuel isn't exactly convenient. The lactation consultant lives in Brier, but fills up at Dr. Dan's in Ballard.
"You have to be kind of adventurous. It's a challenge," she said. "Some people would not like to not be able to just drive into a gas station."
David doesn't attend the numerous biodiesel meetings around town, but plenty of others have gotten active, and a few, like Lyle Rudensey, consider themselves nearly obsessed.
Several times a month, Rudensey collects used cooking oil from Chinese restaurants in his Columbia City neighborhood and carts it back to his garage in five-gallon jugs. There, he whips up a batch of home brew for a used Jetta TDI wagon he bought on eBay. In a little more than two hours, he makes 22 gallons, which last up to two weeks.
"It's a very liberating feeling not to have to go to the gas station," said Rudensey, an educator at the University of Washington's Department of Environmental Health.
The restaurants like it, because it saves them from paying for a company to pick up their waste grease.
Cobbling together Internet information, and through trial and error, Rudensey designed his own processor for about $700. Numerous companies sell do-it-yourself kits ranging from about $600 to $4,000.
His first batch was not a success. His car sputtered and died in a rainstorm with his 86-year-old mom in it. Rudensey had to drain the tank and install a new fuel filter, but he learned to measure the acidity of the oil before collecting it. The more acidic the oil, the harder to make biodiesel.
Rudensey's Web site, www.biolyle.com, shows him making biodiesel to the tune of "Mission: Impossible."
He figures, without counting his time, that it costs about 65 cents a gallon to make his own. Most of that is the cost of methanol, which chemically reacts with the vegetable oil and lye to create biodiesel.
Rudensey's job takes him into middle schools around the region, where he shows kids how to make biodiesel in the classroom. "I usually taste it in front of them, and they all go, 'Ooh!!' And I light a match, so they can see that it doesn't ignite."
He even got a theater company to perform biodiesel plays. When the company asked for ideas for seven plays that it would create in 24 hours, naturally Rudensey wrote down the word 'biodiesel.' The next night, seven original works about biodiesel took the stage.
There are other home brewers around the region, as well as biodiesel co-ops in Tacoma, Olympia and Port Townsend.
Jamie and Melissa Paulson belong to the Tacoma Biodiesel Co-op, with more than 20 other members who pay $3.40 a gallon.
"It's basically a bunch of people. No one's making any money," said Paulson, a software engineer. The fuel is stored in a member's back yard in a shed.
The Paulsons traded in an SUV for a TDI Jetta wagon. And they have a 1982 Toyota diesel pickup called the "soyota," complete with vanity plate.
"We just wanted to get away from using petroleum as much as we could," said Paulson, 27. "More than the foreign relations aspect, I like the fact that it's supporting something that's American-produced, and the farming economy."
Ravi Mikkelson's French Fry Fuel Fools (or F4) isn't exactly a co-op yet, but about 10 of their 45 or so members are running B100 in their cars. The UW student club has made its own batch and hopes to have it tested to see that it meets the fuel standard for biodiesel.
But Mikkelson, 23, has a broader vision: He's formed a company called TruDiesel Fuels and hopes to do business with the university.
"We want to take all the grease from campus and provide fuel for all the campus vehicles," he said. "That increases sustainability."
Also with sustainability in mind, Ballard High science teacher Noam Gundle taught his freshmen about biodiesel and other biofuels last year.
"It's a very powerful statement to vote with your dollars and to choose not to contribute to the oil economy," Gundle said. "It's not just a left-wing political statement; it's about the farmers in Eastern Washington and the Midwest."
Gundle, who went off petroleum last May, is building his own biodiesel processor and collecting waste vegetable oil from a Dumpster in the International District.
At least five of his friends have sold their cars and bought mid-80s diesel cars to run on biodiesel. Gundle's students made biodiesel from a processor they built, and they held a community forum.
"I never thought that you could use french fry oil to make your car run," said Rebecca Miles, a Ballard high sophomore, who helped collect used cooking oil from burger joint Zesto's across the street.
"It was really interesting to see how we could do something ourselves as students and people."