Biodiesel: The Alternative Fuel Revolution
Take a road trip the energy efficient way
By Jenn Lackey
Rumor on the street is diesel cars are making a come back, and biodiesel is partly to blame. Until recently Volkswagen was the only car company selling diesel passenger cars that can run on the non-toxic, biodegradable alternative fuel, known as biodiesel. In October DaimlerChrysler rolled out the first diesel powered mid-size SUV, the 2005 Jeep Liberty. Each Jeep Liberty leaving the factory is powered by a certified five percent blend of biodiesel (B5), proving car manufactures are taking biodiesel seriously.
New tax incentives are also catapulting biodiesel to economic attention for both consumers and businesses. In October President Bush signed the American JOBS Creation Act of 2004, The Jobs Bill ensures a federal excise tax credit of 1 penny per percent of bio diesel blended with petroleum diesel. The act also extends the ethanol tax incentive. If the biodiesel industry is able to retain the support of government, forecasters believe that 50,000 new jobs could be created in the U.S. over the next ten years.
"The media is no longer hyping biodiesel as the methanol treated veggie fuel hippies can power in a VW diesel engine," says Kevin Whilden, co-founder of Go-Biodiesel.org, a Portland based co-operative, "It's finally becoming a legitimate business proposition for biodiesel producers, distributors, American farmers and car manufactures."
No doubt the biodiesel industry is expanding exponentially. The Department of Energery (DOE) predicts an increase of more than 500 million gallons of biodiesel use by 2008, making it a billion dollar market. In 2003 production of the alternative fuel rose 66 percent. Passenger vehicles, business vehicle fleets and farmers used 25 million gallons of biodiesel, a 15 million gallon consumption increase from 2002.
An alternative fuel revolution has been quietly brewing. With increased violence in the Middle East and, the prolonged War in Iraq and increasing petroleum pricing there is a growing concern about our dependency on imported oil and fossil fuels. Hydrogen is being touted at the ultimate solution, but experts say we'll be waiting 20 years at best before we make the transition from an oil-based economy to a hydrogen-based economy. With biodiesel we don't have to wait. Using biodiesel today we can greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, clean up our air and grow our economy on red, white and blue soil.
It's likely that one day we'll drive up to the pump and find biodiesel as an option to fill our tanks. Diesel engines burns much quieter and cleaner than 20 years ago. With biodiesel we can reduce Co2 (greenhouse gases) by 78 percent compared to petroleum diesel, making it the most effective greenhouse gas mitigation technology currently available for heavy-duty vehicles and equipment, according to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB). Other supports tout that biodiesel can reduce Co2 up to 100 percent when using B100 (100% biodiesel) in an updated diesel engine with pollution reducing components.
Biodiesel can be produced from a variety of natural sources such as soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil and animal fats. It can also be blended with petroleum diesels known as B20 (20% biodiesel) and B5 (5% biodiesel). These blends also greatly reduce Co2 emissions and toxins when used in recently manufactured diesel engines, which are much quieter and cleaner than older diesel engines.
Currently car manufactures like DaimlerChrysler will endorse the use of B5 because it will pass the fuel certification process that car manufactures are mandated to use. This is why DaimlerChrysler can't promote higher biodiesel blends, according to Loren Beard, DaimlerChrysler's senior manager of environmental energy planning programs. "The fact that you want to run biodiesel in the real world isn't currently relevant to the vehicle certification process. The certified fuel we have to use must be an approximation of the fuel that is available in the real world, and that hasn't happened yet," Beard says.
But that doesn't mean it's illegal for consumers to run blends as high B100 from co-operatives like Portland's GoBiodiesel. "It's also important to note, biodiesel is not taking used French fry oil and putting it in your tank," says Beard, "Vegetable oils are the crude oil of the biodiesel business, and it must be chemically treated."
Biodiesel needs to be refined and treated through a chemical process, called transesterification. This process separates glycerin from the fat acids leaving behind methyl esters. The methyl esters are mixed with ethanol to create biodiesel. Without this process the glycerin would be quite damaging to the vehicle's fuel system.
After chemical treatment, biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine with little or zero modifications to the engine and fuel system, which is one major benefit to the alternative fuel. New diesel cars with the updated clean burning engines do come with a slightly higher price tag. Consumers can pay up to a $2,500 premium, but consumers will pay a $4,000 premium for a hybrid, according to analyst firm J.D. Power and Associates.
The Hybrid option can also take longer to pay off at the pump. New Diesel engines can get slightly better gas mileage than gasoline-electric Hybrids. For example, The 2004 VW Beetle TDI, which can use biodiesel, uses 31-mpg in the city and 46-mpg on the highway. One disgruntled consumer complained that his Honda Civic hybrid only gets 33-mpg instead of its 48-mpg sticker price. Go Biodiesel's Whilden says his turbo fuel-injected VW Jetta can ride as much as 50-mpg, which is on par with the Toyota Pirus. Another hybrid sore spot is it can cost up to $3,000 or more to replace the battery (most automakers guarantee the battery for 100,000 miles), which greatly reduces its resale value.
Biodiesel also doesn't require any infrastructure change to commercial fueling stations, unlike Hyrodgen or Hybrid powered vehicles. The first hydrogen pump to be integrated into a Shell gas station last November cost about $2 million to install, and the new pump doesn't have a prospect of making money in the short term, according to recent New York Times article.
Biodiesel filling stations have doubled in past year. Currently veggie diesel users can easily drive across country filling up at more than 300 retail filling stations that provide various biodiesel blends to the public, and more than 1,000 petroleum distributors such as Shell carry it nationwide, according to the National Biodeisel Board.
As it stands now the majority of the growing biodiesel market consists of commercial fleets. "The volume of biodiesel consumers use compared to fleets is small," says Tomas Endicott, manager and co-founder of SeQuential Biofuels, a marketing and distribution biofuels company.
Commercial fleets have always used diesel because diesel engines are known to run much more efficiently, which alleviates fuel costs and helps increase the bottom line. "People don't realize diesel is the backbone of our economy. Everything sitting on your desk, your computer, your coffee mug, your stapler came to you by a truck fleet or train powered via diesel fuel," says Jenna Higgins, with the National Biodiesel Board.
Biodiesel gained a foothold in the fuel market with commercial fleets in 1992 when Congress passed The Energy Policy Act (EPAct). Several parts of EPAct were designed to encourage use of alternative fuels to reduce dependence on imported oil and improve air quality. For example, EPAct mandated that 75 percent of Federal agency light-duty vehicles be alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) in fiscal year 2000 and beyond.
In the Northwest, national parks started using biodiesel to meet EPAct 1992 standards. "B20 was an easy solution because it didn't require any infrastructure change. Biodiesel was any easy way for organizations like national parks to meet the mandate," says Endicott. Today more than 400 major fleets use biodiesel commercially nationwide including all four branches of the military, NASA, Harvard, National Park Service, U.S. Postal Service, LL Bean and others.
But up until Mach of 2002, there wasn't much of biodiesel market in the Portland area. When Clark county Washington, which includes the city of Vancouver, decided to run their municipal fleet on B20, a local market for producers interested in sustainable technologies, was created. "In two years, Portland's market went from zero to roughly 700,000 gallons of biodiesel use," says Endicott. In Washington where there is greater diesel consumption, the market is probably double that. Now people are jockeying in the region for more local production or to import it from the Midwest where the majority of biodiesel is produced."
The demand has driven commercial pump distributors, such as Shell, to provide biodiesel as an alternative in select areas. With Bush's recent biodiesel tax incentive there are more economic reasons for commercial fleets to use biodiesel. Currently it's about .25 cents more a gallon to use biodiesel compared to diesel. That's a big increase in a fleet's fuel budget, which is no doubt a barrier to the biodiesel market. But this is likely to change as of January 1st. We could see a .20-cent reduction in the price of biodiesel, reducing the biodiesel premium to just five percent. With rising petroleum prices biodiesel could be on par as cost competitor to petroleum diesel.
If the demand for biodiesel among commercial fleets increases in order to cut costs and meet emission standards, more commercial pumps are likely to offer biodiesel along side gasoline providing an alternative choice to fuel efficient and environmentally conscious consumers. In theory consumer demand would increase and the cost for veggie diesel would continue to drop.
Like consumers using hybrid and hydrogen vehicles, biodiesel consumers are mainly environmentally and politically conscious citizens interested in fuel-efficiency and alternatives to gasoline in order to decrease our dependence on foreign sources of oil. "Many of our users have a strong commitment to fuel efficiency and sustainability because they feel very dissatisfied about our current petroleum situation," says Endicott, "Users feel biodiesel is something they can do on an individual level to feel empowered."
This feeling of empowerment is what has contributed to a grassroots biodiesel movement across the country. Biodiesel cooperatives, like Portland's Go biodiesel cooperative, have sprung up around the nation to produce biodiesel for local consumer demand and educated people about the benefits of biodiesel.
More importantly, the biodiesel market represents consumers' attitudes toward fuel efficiency and alternative fuel solutions. Until recently, American consumers haven't been very conscious about saving money at the pump. American car buyers are generally more concerned with safety, reliability, speed performance and size. The biodiesel grass roots movement and the growing interest in hybrid and hydrogen have made it clear to car manufactures that consumers are looking for more fuel-efficient green solutions.
The U.S. has the largest automobile market and with only one percent of passenger cars registered as diesel. Other manufactures, like Honda and Toyota have mainly focused on the European diesel market, where there are less stringent NOx emission rules, and greater emphasis placed on fuel efficiency and Co2 emissions and the diesel market is soaring.
In 2003 diesel passenger cars accounted for more than 40 percent of Western European new car sales, equating to almost six million unit sales. In the last decade Europe's diesel market has doubled and it's still growing three percent a year, according to London based World Market Research Centre. Volkswagen and DaimlerChryler now sell more diesel cars than they do gasoline-powered cars. Thus far with the growing U.S. interest in diesel and the latest biodiesel tax incentives, it appears Toyota and Honda are taking a wait and see approach while DaimlerChrysler and VW lead the U.S. diesel market.
Despite the fact biodiesel is a more fuel-efficient and pollutant-reducing alternative to gasoline, it's still struggling to overcome its poor reputation as a pollutant from years past. In the U.S. Diesel cars gained a bad reputation in the 1980s for being noisy, smelly and dirty causing environmental outcry and strict urban air quality standards. As a result, the U.S. has the strictest standards for air particulates in the world, making it a hard sell in the U.S. market. Five U.S. states -- California, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont - have banned passenger diesel vehicle sales.
The latest pollutant reducing technologies in engine design allow diesel engines to run cleaner and quieter than ever. Cars with fuel-injected engines, such as the Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-Benz E320, can burn 25 to 30 percent cleaner on average in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions when running petroleum diesel. But despite these reductions, diesel engine manufactures still face the challenge of reducing nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions, which Biodiesel does not do.
The Earth's atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen, and any combustion engine, regardless of what type of fuel will produce NOx emissions. A newer engine with the latest pollutant reducing systems will release the least amount of NOx, while older diesel engines will produce more. But diesel engines are known to have greater NOx issues than gasoline engines, "This is a difficult problem for diesel engine makers, but it can be solved," says DaimlerChrysler's Beard.
Diesel engine makers are racing against time because the Environmental Protection Agencey (EPA) has issued upcoming emissions rules requiring diesel producers to reduce NOx emissions and remove up to 99 percent of the sulfur content in the fuel used by passenger cars and trucks beginning in 2006. In May 2004, the EPA announced that these same rules would apply to diesel for off-road vehicles starting in 2007.
The main hurdle for biodiesel is solving the NOx issue. If Chrysler's Jeep Liberty proves to be a success, we're likely to see other car manufactures tackle the diesel NOx issue. In every other way biodiesel appears to be the most viable and economical environmental solution. "The interesting thing about bio diesel is it already produces 40 percent reduction of volume of soot particulates and 94 percent reduction of carcinogens if using B100 in a diesel engine," says Go Biodiesel's Whilden.
But there is an upside for biodiesel supporters and producers regarding the sulfur issue, According to SeQuential Biofuels' Endicott. Sulfur is what causes the ugly, black smoke that you can see spewing out of the exhaust pipe of a large truck or bus. Of course the less black smoke the better, but removing sulfur presents a challenge for petroleum diesel producers because sulfur reduces the fuel's lubricity, which is needed to prevent engine clogging. Biodiesel actually improves engine lubricity and increases the performance of your engine. This could mean big dollars for the biodiesel market. "Simply using B2 in a diesel engine would solve the sulfur lubricity issue. A 2 percent increase in the use of biodiesel, could mean a billion gallons a year increase, roughly, and that's an enormous increase," says Endicott.
While biodiesel has its share of hurdles, hybrids still rely on fossil fuels for power and hydrogen is entirely too expensive for the average consumer, not to mention it will be years before technology can bring us to a sustainable hydrogen based economy. Also, hydrogen is normally used where it's produced because it's difficult to ship, and some environmentalists say the electricity needed to produce hydrogen could hurt the environment more than the fuel cell can help it.
But it's not really a matter of whether or not biodiesel will win out over hydrogen or hybrid choices. It boils down to a matter of more choice in a society with rapidly decreasing fossil fuels and soaring gasoline prices. In the interim biodiesel appears to be the best choice until a better solution is presented. "If we could live in a world powered by hydrogen it would be wonderful, but biodiesel is the answer now," says Higgens of the National Biodiesel Board, "Biodiesel is the transitional fuel until hydrogen. There is no other fuel that can be used in heavy-duty engines. We can clean up emissions, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and boost our economy, everybody can benefit." And change can happen today.