Get on the Portland Biodiesel Bandwagon
Take a road trip the energy efficient way
By Jenn Lackey
Like most places in America, gas prices in Portland, OR are soaring, but not everyone is disappointed. "I'm delighted that gas prices are rising," says Brian Jamison, President of the Board of Directors for Portland's biodiesel co-op, Go Biodiesel, "Rising gas prices are more realistic, and we have this petroleum addiction that we need to fix."
With increased violence in the Middle East and the prolonged War in Iraq there is a growing concern toward our dependency on foreign sources of oil. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the United States consumes more than one-fourth of the world's oil, yet produces only about one tenth. America also spends approximately $100 billion per year to import more than 50% of its oil. The transportation sector currently accounts for approximately two-thirds of all the U.S. petroleum use and roughly one-fourth of total U.S. energy consumption.
With this unbalanced consumption comes an increased in environmental hazard caused from petroleum. The DOE recently reported that emissions from the 200 million cars and trucks in the country account for about half of all air pollution and more than 80% of urban air pollution. Nearly 62 million people, almost a quarter of the U.S. population, are living in areas that violate federal public health standards for clean air.
To counter some of these problems many Portlanders are looking for alternative methods to power their vehicles with biodiesel being one of the leading contenders. According to a recent EPA study, biodiesel is one of the only alternative fuels usable in any conventional diesel engine with little or no modification to the engine and the fuel system. "Everything else requires a great deal of modification, or it won't work, or it isn't here yet," says Jamison.
Any diesel engine today is capable of running on biodiesel fuel, which can be produced from a variety of natural sources such as soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and animal fats. In its pure form known as B100, it can release up to 100% less emissions. In addition it can be blended with other petrodiesel commonly knows as B20 (20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petrodiesel).
Now gas-guzzlers' have a strong economic reason to consider alternative fuels. For the first time the cost of biodiesel per mile is less expensive than gasoline. Current gas prices are hovering around $2.21 in Portland, and that's the low end of the spectrum. The current price for biodiesel is $3.20 per gallon for 100% biodiesel, which burns much more efficiently, causing the cost per mile to be less expansive than gasoline. For example a 2004 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo S uses gasoline and uses 23 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. The 2004 Volkswagen Beetle TDI, which can use biodiesel, uses 31 mpg in the city and 46 mpg on the highway. If you do the math it equates to following: gasoline uses 9.3 cents mpg in the city compared to Biodiesel's 9.6 cents mpg in the city and gasoline uses 7.6 cents mpg on the compared to biodiesel's 6.9 cents mpg on the highway.
While gasoline cars may have slightly better gas mile on the freeway, Jamison points out, "That's a difference of .3 cents per mile. If you drive a 100 miles, it only costs you 30 cents more. Isn't saving the planet worth .3 cents per mile?"
To accommodate this need Go Biodiesel, founded in 2002, is Portland's first biodiesel co-op. Its goal is to educate people about the advantages of biodiesel, teach people how to make fuel, and make it easier for other biodiesel cooperatives to formulate. The co-op is in the process of purchasing property in southeast Portland to house their biodiesel processors and expand its operation. In addition to the co-op, SeQuential Biofuels and Albina Fuel provide a total of four biodiesel pumps in Portland proper. It's likely the number of commercial and retail biodiesel pumps will increase soon. The biodiesel industry is expanding exponentially. The DOE predicts an increase of more than 500 million gallons of biodiesel use by 2008, making it a billion dollar market.
In addition to my recent conversation with Brian Jamison, last year I sat down with Kevin Whilden, a founding member of Go Biodiesel and I learned a thing or two about alternative fuel sources, the importance of change and what we can do to start the ball rolling in a more economic and environmentally friendly different direction.
What is biodiesel?
Biodiesel is diesel fuel made from cooking oil and runs in any diesel engine. It's much less toxic than gasoline fuel and it isn't made from fossil fuels. It was invented in 1894 when Dr. Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine as a way for farmers to fuel their farm equipment with fuel that they could grow. The first diesel engines ran on peanut oil. In the 1930s and 1940s when fossil fuels became so plentiful, we stopped using biodiesel. And now with all the problems that fossil fuels cause in the world, it's time to start using it regularly.
Who is currently using it?
There are all kinds of people using it, everybody from standard consumers to cities for public transportation vehicles such as buses, and farmers use it to operate farm equipment.
Tell us about Portland's biodiesel co-op.
The goal of Portland's biodiesel co-op is to advocate people to start using biodiesel. We see biodiesel as a grass roots fuel supply, and a way to escape from the fossil fuel addiction. Anybody can make it, and we want to teach people how to make their own fuel. We also are blueprinting the methods for setting up a waste oil collection, storage, and biodiesel processor. The Co-op will work out the details, with the hope that people in other cities can form their own co-ops and make their own fuel.
Can you tell me a bit more about the benefits of biodiesel?
Absolutely. Number one it's a locally produced fuel grown on American soil. It's also non-toxic. It's less toxic than table salt and it's biodegradable. It actually bio degrades in a matter of weeks. For example it's been two decades since the Exxon Valdez spill up in Alaska, which happened in 1989, and there is still an incredible amount of pollution existing from it. Even today, you can lift up a rock in Prince William Sound and see oil. The ecosystem hasn't fully recovered.
It also greatly reduces toxic emission. In almost every major category it reduces emissions from 50 to 100%, and it doesn't contribute to global warming, which is a big looming issue. Scientific consensus says we have until the year 2020 to start decreasing our emissions in Co2, or the world will warm to a point that could cause irretrievable climate change, massive alterations in the earth's climate and ecosystems. To get to that decrease by 2020, we have to do everything possible to decrease our emissions and we're running out of time.
It's very difficult for many people to grasp the idea of global warming because the time scale is so far off. The warming is going to occur over the course of the next few hundred years, and when you're thinking about your next paycheck, it's hard to think of your great, great grand children. But global warming is a very real threat.
When you change climate for a civilization that is teetering on the edge of resource consumption, such as our civilization, a climate change occurring over time can easily knock you off the edge, and your civilization may have a hard time surviving. For instance the Mayans had civil war because of natural climate change. It caused a disruption in their ecosystems, which ultimately affected their food supply. Similar events will probably happen again.
Biodiesel also has great health benefits because it reduces particulates, the black smoke or soot that comes out of diesel engines by 50% to 80%. Particulates contain some of the most carcinogenic substances known to man. And that is probably the biggest health threat from any diesel engine. Biodiesel is the best way to reduce diesel particulates NOW, even in older, dirty diesel engines. In fact, the State of Washington also passed a bill to test biodiesel in school buses, as a way to reduce the toxic impact of old school buses on children.
What cars are best suited for biodiesel?
Any diesel engine will work. But some are better than others. First I'd like to point out there are two types of biodiesel. Pure biodiesel is called B100. The most common type is B20, which is 20% biodiesel and 80% fossil fuel oil. Both have increased benefits for engine life and pollution. Biodiesel will dissolve natural rubber. And newer cars typically have all synthetic rubber. So older cars may need a conversion kit to run B100, but B20 will run in any car with zero modification.
I drive a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, turbo direct injection, with a new kind of diesel technology that is extremely low emissions. It gets 50 miles to a gallon, that's equivalent to the Toyota Prius hybrid car. And hybrid cars also have a lot more environmental impact due to the batteries they use, and the fact that they still contribute to global warming. In smog-prone areas with a lot of traffic like L.A., hybrids may be a better environmental choice, but otherwise I think a biodiesel fueled TDI is the smartest environmentally friendly car in existence.
Why biodiesel vs. other alternative non-fossil fuels such as hydrogen, which has been getting a lot of media play?
Fuels cells are not the answer. If we go for fuel cells, it will take at least 20 years before any significant benefit is reached, because it requires a whole new infrastructure. Hydrogen is too little too late when we need to be reducing global warming emissions by 2020. The bio-diesel infrastructure already exists because so many diesel cars already exist, and it doesn't take very long to grow a few more plants to make oil. We could make a huge dent in fossil fuel needs in the short term with biodiesel. It's the most exciting environmental fuel option.
Where can folks get biodiesel?
You can make it yourself or look for a local commercial supplier. You can find a list of those suppliers at www.gobiodiesel.com
However, making it is viable option. All you need is a supply of oil and you can build yourself a processor. You could do it in your own garage. You simply need a supply of either virgin oil or waste cooking oil from a restaurant's fryer. Then you take lye (Red Devil drain cleaner) and methanol (e.g. rubbing alcohol), mix them all together let them sit and you have biodiesel. So you can go to the supermarket and buy your own ingredients to fuel your car.
How do you fuel up for long road trips?
If you can't find biodiesel you can always run regular diesel no problem. The co-op is hoping to set up a network of biodiesel suppliers in other cities around the country.
Are there any negatives associated with biodiesel?
The one thing it does not do is reduce NOX, nitrogen oxides, which cause smog. All diesel engines emit NOX, and there are so many diesel engines on the road that aren't going to be going away soon and will keep emitting NOX regardless of fuel choice. But given all of the other environmental benefits, I don't think there is really a down side to replacing diesel with biodiesel.
Is there a profitable business model to selling biodiesel for biodiesel producers/ manufactures?
Absolutely. There are producers springing up and left and right. Raw ingredients cost can be had for 50 cents a gallon and you can sell it for the $3 bucks a gallon. Considering gas prices now, why not spend $3 bucks a gallon and stay out of the gas/ oil loop.
What are some of the hurdles biodiesel users and sellers face?
It's accepting something new, enduring a change. It's having a diesel engine because most of the cars are gas. And it's finding adequate supply, which takes effort. But we can produce plenty of biodiesel fuel if we want.
Do you ever see biodiesel becoming mainstream?
Absolutely because of how excited people get when you tell them about the benefits. There hasn't been a single person that hasn't been intrigued by the concept of biodiesel, regardless of their views. There are lots of people making sacrifices in their life to run biodiesel. One of our members has been making 50 gallons a month to run biodiesel and he has been collecting fuel from several local Portland brewpubs.
You could collect 5% of the US biodiesel consumption from waste cooking oil such as McDonalds fryers. You could make 15% of our diesel consumption from fallow cropland, or cropland not currently in use.
We've also done studies to show how rich a source of algae is of oil. And with a relatively small investment we could develop the technology to supply the entire country's energy needs. We could produce 120% of the entire US energy consumption if we grew biodiesel from algae on fallow cropland. It's a very exciting possibility.
What is the point in investing in a rollout of biodiesel production when hydrogen supporters say it's a better and cleaner use of fuel?
It's simple. Biodiesel will get us to the 2020 Co2 emissions deadline because the biodiesel infrastructure already exists. We can start using and producing biodiesel today, we don't have to wait.