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Home-brewing energy independence

Man putting fuel into gas tank. Photo courtesy of Biodiesel America
Photo courtesy of Biodiesel America.

Sound Consumer | July 2005

by Dave Manelski

“The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.”
— Rudolph Diesel, 1912

(July 2005) — German inventor Dr. Rudolph Diesel is credited for inventing the internal combustion engine that bears his name, unveiled to the world at the Paris Exhibition Fair in 1900. Diesel also was one of the first biofuel advocates, envisioning a world without petroleum. A passionate advocate for energy independence and efficiency, Diesel’s engine ran on peanut oil and a variety of other seed crops.

Diesel died under mysterious circumstances in 1913, disappearing on a short ferry voyage across the English Channel, his body later recovered. Historians speculate that he could have been murdered for selling trade secrets to France before the start of World War I, or because of his outright irreverence towards the fossil fuel industry, or that he committed suicide over his futile effort to push diesel engines into the mainstream. Up against the likes of Henry Ford, the diesel engine was relegated to agricultural and industrial use, and Dr. Diesel’s vision for a world of vehicles fueled by seed crops never materialized.

Jump to the year 2005, in Seattle’s University District. Volkswagen diesels line the parking lot and down the street. The classic sputter of diesel engines is heard nearby and the distinct smell of French fries is in the air. A crowd gathers to commemorate the grand opening of the city’s newest biodiesel fueling station. Enthusiasts are revved up about this new public pump and the first batch of locally produced fuel from Seattle Biodiesel.

Biodiesel is an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel made from renewable resources such as vegetable oils, animal fats or algae. It can be blended in any ratio with petroleum diesel, and any modern diesel automobile runs biodiesel without modifications, although the availability of diesel passenger cars in the United States is limited to only a few manufacturers, most notably Volkswagen.

Clean-burning biofuels like biodiesel are taking off rapidly in the Pacific Northwest. With rising gas prices in recent years, more efficient diesel automobiles are becoming more popular. Consumers concerned about the environmental impact of automobiles and/or the importation of foreign oil increasingly turn to alternative fuels like biodiesel.

Why biodiesel?
Author Greg Paul sums up the benefits of biodiesel in his newly published study, “Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy.” “Biodiesel produces lower quantities of cancer-causing particulate emissions, is more biodegradable than sugar, is less toxic than table salt, and because it can be produced from domestic feedstocks, biodiesel reduces the need for foreign imports of oil while simultaneously boosting the local economy. No wonder there is so much enthusiasm, especially in the agricultural community, about biodiesel; farmers can literally grow their own fuel.”

A recently passed federal tax incentive gave biodiesel a further lift, knocking the price of 100 percent biodiesel (or B100) down at the pump. In Seattle, popular distributor Dr. Dan’s FuelWerks dropped prices from $3.60 per gallon to $3.00 per gallon in May.

In the Puget Sound region and around the country, biodiesel sells for as little as $2.40 per gallon, in line with conventional petroleum diesel prices. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is proposing an amendment to the Senate energy bill that would drive down the cost of biodiesel another 25 to 50 cents. With the cost premium for biodiesel and other biofuels quickly disappearing, the industry is experiencing rapid growth.

Despite the obvious political and environmental benefits of biofuels, growth has its issues. According to the Department of Energy, the United States consumes 60 billion gallons of petroleum diesel per year and 120 billion gallons of gasoline. In 2004, the United States produced 150 million gallons of biodiesel and 3 billion gallons of ethanol. Farmers forced to decide between food crops and fuel crops face difficult decisions in the coming years.

Currently, biofuels rely on heavily subsidized U.S. crops such as soybeans (of which 85 percent is genetically modified) and corn (of which roughly 40 percent is genetically modified). Corn is especially ill suited for fuel production because non-organic farmers rely heavily on large amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, pest problems associated with mono-crop soybean production and the unchecked spread of genetically modified seeds pose serious threats to organic farmers. More efficient crops, such as algae and jathropa, are not supported by the same federal subsidies as soy and corn.

Rife with their own set of environmental concerns, biodiesel and ethanol struggle to meet U.S. energy needs. Despite that, the buzz around homegrown biofuels continues to spread in Washington state.

King County Metro runs a biodiesel blend in 25 percent of its bus fleet as part of a greenhouse gas mitigation program and Metro is recognized as having one of the cleanest fleets in the country.

In 2004, the Breathable Bus Coalition formed to advocate for biodiesel in school buses throughout Puget Sound. By working directly with parents and school districts, the coalition hopes to encourage biodiesel use to reduce kids’ exposure to highly toxic diesel fumes. Seattle Biodiesel began doing business in the spring of 2005 and founder John Plaza said he aims to produce 1.5 million gallons annually, with a capacity for 5 million.

According to Cormac Pope at University Volkswagen, “More than 60 percent of our new car sales are diesel, and the majority of those buyers are considering running biodiesel in some blend.”

Today, there are dozens of “green” vehicle options for every lifestyle. In the 1970s, fuel efficiency was associated with small cars and dirty diesels. Today, alternative fuel vehicles are available in all shapes and sizes, from SUVs to pickup trucks to station wagons. Alternative fuel stations, once hard to find and on the fringe of eco-lifestyle, are now widely available throughout Puget Sound.

Were he alive today, Dr. Diesel surely would appreciate the enthusiasm brewing for biofuels. He was a visionary 100 years before his time. A journey on the road to energy independence begins with a single step.

Author Dave Manelski is the program coordinator for Earth Share of Washington and proud owner of a Volkswagen Passat TDI (Turbo Direct Injection Diesel), which he runs on biodiesel. Earth Share of Washington is a partnership of 66 leading conservation organizations that protect our health, our children and quality of life in Washington state. Earth Share connects people and businesses to their community through payroll giving campaigns, volunteer projects, and involvement in our annual Day in the Park. Last year, Earth Share helped raise more than $1 million for environmental organizations.

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