Fill ‘er up … with biodiesel
June 26, 2007
SUMMIT COUNTY – When Seth Bounds started his car service in Summit County nearly three years ago, he felt a sense of environmental responsibility. So he named the company “Green Limousines” and decided to try his luck running the fleet on biodiesel. He’s used it ever since.”It’s how we lead our personal lives,” Bounds said. “It’s how we run our business.”Bounds’ cars are often in Denver and other areas on the Front Range where biodiesel is readily available, making it easy to fill up. But up here in Summit County, public pumps don’t carry biodiesel.”It’s really hard for personal drivers to make that jump,” he said. “There are a few people in the area who are interested, but they have to go to pretty extreme measures to get it.”In conjunction with the High Country Conservation Center, Bounds began rallying service stations in the county to provide biodiesel.So far, his efforts haven’t turned up much good news for county residents and businesses hoping to green up their vehicles.In general, biodiesel offers many advantages over petroleum diesel. It’s a biodegradable, non-toxic form of renewable energy that burns cleaner than regular diesel. In the U.S., most biodiesel is made from soybeans, but it can also be made from other substances, such as canola oil, sunflower oil or recycled restaurant cooking oil.How it worksBiodiesel is refined through a process called transesterification, which enables it to run in most regular diesel engines without any modifications.Processed biodiesel provides about the same fuel economy as diesel, though some brands claim that vehicles actually get slightly better gas mileage using their biodiesel products.When biodiesel is first used, a “scrubbing effect” may occur during which the product cleans out the gunk that diesel has left behind. The filter should be changed after the first few fill-ups, which can be done quickly and cheaply. After that, biodiesel keeps the engine cleaner and maintenance costs can be less than with diesel.Biodiesel can be used in its pure form, known as B100, or blended with petroleum diesel and other additives. B20, a standard blend, includes 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel.In addition to reducing dependence on foreign oil, biodiesel decreases the exhaust emissions of several dangerous pollutants. For example, compared to diesel, pure biodiesel reduces carbon monoxide emissions by about a half and decreases the release of cancer-causing agents by as much as 90 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.Many of the environmental advantages are also present in blends with lower concentrations of biodiesel.”The bottom line is that you get the most benefit in the first 20 percent,” said John Long, co-founder and director of business development for Blue Sun Biodiesel, LLC, based in Fort Collins. “It’s not linear, so as the percentage continues to increase, the emissions reductions really curve off.” Using the correct additives can reduce emissions even further.In the last several years, the biodiesel industry has boomed. In 2004, 25 million gallons of it were sold. The following year, that number tripled to around 75 million gallons, and an estimated two times as much biodiesel was sold in 2006 as in 2005.The governor of Colorado signed a bill last year requiring all state-owned vehicles and equipment to be fueled by B20 when available and affordable. Summit County also runs about 90 percent of its diesel vehicles on biodiesel.The challenges of making biodiesel available to the public in this small mountain community are two-fold. One stems from the harsh climate, the other from economics.Cold weather concernsPure biodiesel begins to congeal at a much higher temperature than diesel, said John Jones, transit director for the Summit Stage, which runs on biodiesel. Jones likened the cold weather congealing effect to french fries growing lumpy as they cool.Petroleum diesel is mixed with additives to keep it thin and flowing in cold weather. But biodiesel producers are still fine-tuning the process and ingredients to ensure cool temperatures don’t preclude the fuel’s use.”It’s really a technology that’s in its infancy,” Jones said.Blending biodiesel with petroleum diesel helps bring down the temperature at which the substance congeals and starts to clog the engine. That’s why B20 has been one of the industry’s best sellers.Additives can also lower the temperature that the congealing effect kicks in, but because the field is so new, industry standards have not yet been developed for the best additives.Summit Stage vehicles have run mostly on biodiesel for more than a year, thanks to improvements in quality and blending. The county has biodiesel hauled up from the Front Range and stored in underground tanks. Before that, Jones said they tried and failed to use biodiesel for the Summit Stage, because they had difficulty finding blends that ran reliably in cold weather. Also, the biodiesel supply is sometimes low, and they can’t even get it.Last year, most Stage vehicles ran on B20 during the summer, then B10 through the fall. During the winter, the vehicles could only run on 2 percent biodiesel and were placed back on petroleum diesel during the coldest months.This year, Jones said he hopes to run the vehicles on 5 percent biodiesel throughout the coldest months.”It’s a cleaner burn – less black smoke with it,” Jones said of biodiesel. “And it’s 2, 5 or 20 percent of foreign oil you didn’t buy.”But those benefits come with a price tag. The Summit Stage pays about 14 cents more per gallon for biodiesel than they do for regular diesel.”We’re trying to do our part, but it’s been a rough road,” Jones said.However, not all biodiesels are created equal. John Long of Blue Sun Biodiesel said their company’s B20 has been tested and proven efficient in conditions harsher than those found in Summit County, such as in 20 degree below zero weather in northern Wyoming and Montana and at 12,000 feet in Aspen.”Know your source,” he said. “Know your supplier. There are so many things that need to happen before you can expect it to perform problem-free.”Economics of the switchCold weather concerns aside, some local service stations also worry about whether they could actually haul in a profit selling biodiesel.”Many retailers don’t have two diesel tanks,” Long said, referring to service stations in Summit County. “Most retailers aren’t really ready to make that commitment yet without seeing the demand.”Acorn Petroleum, a distributor of Blue Sun Biodiesel based in Colorado Springs, is one of them. The company began considering selling biodiesel at their station in Silverthorne when Bounds and the High Country Conservation Center approached them about it. But the station’s one storage tank capacity limits their ability to carry both diesel and biodiesel; if they started carrying biodiesel, they’d have to abandon their high-selling diesel.”Our concern is that we would be alienating anyone who is leery of biodiesel,” said Tom Mousaw, operations manager at Acorn petroleum.But perhaps the only way to know whether they could sell the same volume in biodiesel as they do in diesel would be to try it, he said, adding, “We haven’t thrown the idea out the window.”The Catherine Store in Carbondale made the switch from diesel to Blue Sun’s B20 biodiesel more than three years ago.”It was a decision for our environment,” said Cheryl Loggins, who co-owns the store with her sister.She was prepared to lose money but thought it would be worth it to help the environment. As it turns out, the store sells about 50 gallons more biodiesel each day than it did diesel, even though the price of biodiesel is about 15 cents more per gallon.Even the fact that she carries it attracts customers who don’t have cars with diesel engines but want to support the environmental statement, she said. Loggins has never received any complaints about the B20 not functioning smoothly during the winter.”I would tell people not to think twice about it,” she said. “Just to do it. It’s been a really good experience for us.”When Bounds and the High Country Conservation Center inquired with Acorn and a few other local stations about carrying biodiesel, the companies requested the group compile a list of signatures of local individuals and businesses willing to buy biodiesel to ensure there was enough demand in the county. High Country has rounded up some signatures, but with a tight budget and only three staff members, the project hasn’t yet taken off.”It’s a project we’re very, very interested in and at the heart of what we believe in,” said director Carly Wier. “We just have so many other projects right now.”But the group is hoping to put on an informational forum about biodiesel for the public later this year and gather more signatures then.”You can bombard people with environmental problems, but you need to offer solutions and actions,” said Beth Orstad, program coordinator at the High Country Conservation Center, who used biodiesel for years when she lived in Boulder .The biodiesel industry still has kinks to smooth out.”Biodiesel is not the fuel of the future,” Bounds said. “It’s something to wean ourselves off of petroleum.”But it’s come a long way in recent years, and continued improvements may alleviate cold weather concerns in a climate like Summit County’s. Then it will just come down to demonstrating demand.For more information about biodiesel or to support biodiesel coming to Summit County, contact the High Country Conservation Center at (970) 668-5703.Julia Connors can be reached at (970) 668-4620.