We’ve carried many stories about biodiesel, from our Daryll Hannah interview to our Josh Tickell interview, but now something big is happening and biodiesel is moving from an obscure fringe product to a massive international movement. Consumers are demanding to run their cars on biodiesel — and their generators and their home heating units.
Over the coming weeks well have full information on how to make, store and use biodiesel in your home and your vehicle. Here’s an article by Andy Smith in Kentucky which sums up the situation in the US right now and every where else for that matter. Towards the end of the story we have a detailed survey of international biofuel developments as far as they affect the main user of gas – the auto.
Sarah Sommer doesn’t pay nearly three bucks a gallon for gas. She hardly buys any fuel at all.
Instead, she’s switched from gasoline engines to diesel and started making most of her own go-juice, processing it from used cooking oil she picks up for the price of a Chinese dinner.
The alternative fuel is called biodiesel. It isn’t widely available in Kentucky yet, but it’s catching on in small pockets, from backyard breweries to gas stations in small towns.
Thousands of drivers across the country, turned off by gas shortages, climbing prices and environmental decay, are joining in – at least the ones willing to put in the work, handle the potentially dangerous chemicals and pay – or ignore – the taxes.
Still, “there’s just a whole ton of good reasons for it,” Sarah said. “I’m surprised that more people aren’t going for it.”
Diesel engines have been capable of running on vegetable, peanut and hemp oils since their invention more than a century ago. That’s what they started on.
But the fuel changed after the death of inventor Rudolph Diesel in 1913, when oil companies switched to using a petroleum byproduct. Then, around 1990, soybean farmers looking for a market discovered that soybean oil, once refined, would burn cleanly and generate nearly as much horsepower as petroleum-based diesel fuel.
But it wasn’t just soybeans that worked. The fuel could be made from almost any kind of vegetable oil, including leftover restaurant grease.
In 2002, EPA testing determined biodiesel emissions were cleaner than those of regular diesel. And all the oil in biodiesel adds extra lubricant to diesel engines, making them last longer.
The first commercial producers started turning out biodiesel in 1999. By last year, annual production had jumped to 25 million gallons.
This year’s total, driven by a federal incentive and fuel shortages, is expected to be nearly double, according to Jenna Higgins, spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board.
“I believe this will be the year that goes down in history as the year biodiesel really took off,” she said.
So, where can you get it?
That’s a bit of a problem in Kentucky. For now, it has few retailers – But there are a other options.
One is to form a co-op and buy the fuel from a wholesaler.
“Co-ops are fantastic,” said Josh Tickell, a prominent biodiesel author.
Trouble is, most biodiesel production is still geared toward fleets, and it isn’t pure biodiesel but a mix of plant- and petroleum-based fuel. Not cheap, either.
At Ward Oil Co. in Lexington, the pure stuff, B100, usually sells by the drum at upward of $3.50 a gallon. The more common B20, a blend that contains 20 percent biodiesel, is slightly cheaper than regular diesel.
B20 is still a good start – and better than using regular gas or straight petroleum diesel, according to Aaron Evenson, general manager of Ward.
“It’s more economical … to go to the blends,” he said. “We’ll never get rid of fossil fuels, but by using the blends we can reduce our dependency by 20 percent.”
B20 may soon be available closer to Kentucky – courtesy of Willie Nelson. The famous musician is an owner of BioWillie, a company that distributes biodiesel fuel to gas stations.
Ron Richardson, a national sales rep who lives in Louisville, said he’s working on a deal with an oil company to carry the fuel
Meanwhile, people who don’t want any petroleum in their tanks – and don’t want to pay the high price for commercial B100 – will have to make it themselves.
Sarah has been running her 2000 Volkswagen on vegetable oil for almost a year. And she doesn’t even process it into biodiesel.
She outfitted the car, as well as her ’93 Dodge truck, with a converter kit that allows it to burn straight, unrefined cooking grease.
Once a week, she visits a favorite Chinese restaurant, orders dinner and leaves a generous tip – along with two 5-gallon buckets. she picks them up the next day, full of used oil.
Sarah lets the grease settle, then cleans it with water and commercial filters. The cleaning takes about an hour. That filtered oil goes into the gas tank.
Burning straight oil is not as simple as using refined biodiesel. The car needs two tanks: one for regular diesel and one for grease. The diesel is used to start the engine and heat the grease to at least 150 degrees, so it flows smoothly and doesn’t gunk up the works.
Sarah said she drives the first two or three miles each day on diesel. Then she switches over to cooking oil.
She’s put nearly 9,000 miles on the Volkswagen that way, averaging about 40 miles to the gallon. And it burns with a sweet smell.
Now she wants to cut out diesel altogether.
She should have no problem, according to Tickell.
“It’s something that anyone could do,” he said. “It’s about as complex as making a margarita.”
Sarah said she’s slowly collecting the parts she needs to build a small processor in her back yard. Once she has everything she needs,she’ll use oil from the Chinese restaurant to make a few gallons each week.
That’ll be enough to replace regular diesel in both the Volkswagen and the truck.
Averaged out, it should cost about 70 cents per gallon to make biodiesel at home, Tickell said.
Of course, not everyone recommends it.
“We feel very strongly that homemade biodiesel is not a good idea,” said Higgins, with the biodiesel board.
She said fuel brewed in the back yard doesn’t meet national quality standards, meaning a shorter engine life. And the methanol used in the process can cause serious health problems if not handled properly.
But the idea of making your own fuel is contagious.
Duane Woods is the diesel specialist who helped Sarah add the vegetable-oil kit to her truck. That was enough to hook him.
He’s already planning to convert his own Volkswagen Rabbit.
It just makes sense, the way he sees it.
“More and more people are looking at this,” Woods said. “Saying, ‘Hey, how can I save some money?”‘
Cars are a vital part of US society and every other society too.
Brazil was the original biofuels pioneer, reacting to the 1970s oil crisis with a pro-ethanol programme so successful that by the mid-1980s, ethanol-only vehicles accounted for 90% of new car sales. But a poor harvest in 1990 led to a national ethanol shortage. Drivers never trusted the fuel again. Flex-fuel cars remove that risk, and they now account for some 40% of new car sales in Brazil. The introduction of Volkswagen’s Totalflex Golf in March 2003 has brought ethanol use back to its heyday; production of ethanol in Brazil shot up between 2000 and 2004 from 210m to 290m tonnes, after remaining stagnant for a decade.
Ford followed Volkswagen to Rio with its Ford Focus Flexi-Fuel, also big in Sweden. Fiat, General Motors, Peugeot and Renault have also launched flexi-fuel cars. The cars have sensors that monitor the fuel and adjust the engine to cope with whatever mix of ethanol and petrol is in the tanks.
The US has embraced biofuels enthusiastically. This year’s Energy bill stipulated that biofuels should account for 10% of US transport fuel by 2009. Biofuel use is already up to 5% in 22 states in the Midwest, but meeting the target will require a massive ramping up of production.
Tony Radich, who heads the biofuels wing of the US department of energy, told The Business: It looks like ethanol is going to be the biggest alternative fuel. We’ve got a long way to go on hydrogen. First we have to make the fuel-cell cars work acceptably, then we have to make them cost something less than a million dollars.
Most cars can run quite happily with up to 10% of low-emissions ethanol or biodiesel mixed in with their fuel. Doing so can even improve performance. The new SAAB 9.5 Bio Power car has 20% more power when using 85% bioethanol than when it uses petrol.?
In the UK Tesco and Sainsbury’s both mix Brazilian sugar cane ethanol into their green fuel brands. Still, the UK is a relative laggard in taking up biofuels. Just 0.3% of the UK’s fuel consumption comes from such fuels, putting the country far behind the 2% recommended for this year in Europe’s biofuels directive and making the 5.57% targeted for 2010 look completely out of reach. The UK has very limited production: Argent Energy’s plant in Motherwell near Glasgow makes biodiesel from animal fat and used cooking oils. But several new plants are on the way. Aim-listed Biofuels Corporation is nearing completion of its refinery in Teesside, and Greenergy is building biodiesel plant near Imingham. ?
Britain produces no bioethanol at all, but Wessex Grain, a cooperative of wheat farmers, last Monday announced that it had raised 50m from CSFB and Tudor Capital to build a 30m bioethanol plant in Somerset.
The UK produces about 16m tonnes of wheat a year and only consumes 12m tonnes. If the 4m tonne surplus went into bioethanol, farmers would supply 5% of the UK’s fuel demand at a stroke. Bioethanol’s critics claim the tractors, fertilisers, and fermentation involved in producing ethanol use more energy than the fuel contains, and the process overall emits more carbon than the same amount of petrol. Chief among the critics is Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University in the US, who argues corn ethanol uses 29% more energy than it produces. This is hotly disputed by the US Department of Agriculture. The UK’s government’s Central Science Laboratory claims that fuel bioethanol from wheat produces 65% less greenhouse gases than petrol.
Pimentel claims entirely replacing petrol and diesel would require 97% of US arable land to be farmed with corn for ethanol. If the UK diverted the entire national wheat crop to bioethanol, it would replace just 20% of demand. Malcolm Shepherd, managing director of Green Spirit, walks the middle line. He says: I’m not suggesting for a moment that we can possibly substitute all petrol because we use massive amounts. None of these energy questions can be addressed by a single policy. But we’ve got to look at the alternatives: This is one of them.
Iogen, a Canadian company backed by Royal Dutch Shell, is developing a process which could vastly increase the potential fuel produced by farmers, by allowing ethanol to be produced from agricultural waste such as corn cobs and straw. Iogen hopes to commercialise the process from 2007. The process uses enzymes to convert the cellulose in agriculture residues into sugars.
In the past, economics held bioethanol back but these days it can have the edge pricewise on petrol or diesel. At the moment, biodiesel prices are attractive in countries like the UK where there’s a tax break, according to Greenergy, which is building a biodiesel plant in Immingham. It is the largest importer and user of biofuels in the UK and sells to Sainsbury’s.
Last week’s official Platts price for diesel is $655 a tonne. German biodiesel made from rape seed oil costs $930 a tonne, but the tax incentive in the UK is worth $400 a tonne. In Germany there’s no tax at all and 60% of lorries use pure biodiesel because its cheaper. A Greenergy trader said: At the moment the economics work for biodiesel.
FORD plans to produce 280,000 ethanol-capable vehicles in 2006. The carmaker already has about 1m such vehicles on the road. About 400 of America’s 176,000 fuelling stations sell ethanol. The technology of the moment, however, is hybrid engines. Toyota has been working on hybrids since the 1960s and is today’s leader thanks to the Prius. Toyota lost money on every one of the first-generation Prius cars it sold, and analysts said the latest version does no more than break even. But it has proved a design success.
The latest Prius is a svelte five-seat saloon that can do 100mph with a combined average fuel consumption of 65.7 miles per gallon and whose exhaust emissions are among the lowest of any car on the road. It runs on petrol, electricity, or both, and sophisticated computer controls ensure that the batteries are always charged by the petrol engine.
Honda, the other hybrid pioneer, has just announced a hybrid version of its new Civic saloon. Sales of hybrids are expected to triple over the next two years but from a low base; the business case is not proven, critics say. Installing what are, in effect, two power units increases the vehicle’s weight, complexity and cost. It may meet the regulations but it does not represent an increase in efficiency.
Dave Cole, president of the Centre for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, estimates hybrid vehicles cost 2,200 to 3,900 extra to make, and provide a 30% fuel saving. But, even after the recent rise in petrol prices, most customers do not save enough on fuel to justify the extra cost, so carmakers end up charging a lower premium and earning less than they could on an ordinary car.
The fear of low volumes has prompted German and US carmakers to seek alliances to lower the cost of producing hybrids. Earlier this year, two of Detroit’s Big Three carmakers, General Motors and Daimler Chrysler, agreed to work together on the development of the cars.
Carlos Ghosn, joint chief executive of Nissan and Renault, has described petrol/electric hybrid cars as a terrible business proposition. Earlier this month he said: Hybrid sales account for less than 1% of global sales. It is a niche technology. The question is how much the consumer is willing to pay, and if they are unsure at $70 a barrel (for oil) I would be very worried. For now it is a terrible business prospect.His disdain did not stop him trying out a Honda hybrid at the Frankfurt show.
The German manufacturers maintain that diesel engines can achieve comparable, or better, fuel consumption than hybrids. In some European countries, diesels now account for more than 50% of new car sales.
But diesel cars have never caught on in America. Even with increased fuel prices after Hurricane Katrina, petrol in America still costs half as much as in Britain, so fuel consumption is less of a concern to those who favour big, heavy 4x4s and pick-up trucks. The car of choice for the environmentally friendly American is the hybrid.
Honda for one appears to be hedging its bets, saying that hybrids will form part of its fuel-efficient offering in the medium term and that European consumer favours diesel engines. Demand for hybrids is certainly robust. Honda had sold 30,000 of the cars in the US by August, already more than the whole of 2004 when total sales were 27,000. In Europe, volumes are lower but sales have more than doubled: 1,967 were sold to August compared to 855 in 2004.
Honda also intends to make further improvements to the internal combustion engine. In November, it will launch a new Civic 1.8 i-VTEC which will be marketed as having the performance of a 2.1 litre engine using the fuel of a 1.6 litre model. Greater fuel efficiency 20% better than existing engines will be achieved through reducing internal friction as well as pumping losses. Long-term, Honda is putting its money on emissions-free fuel cells which it is trialling in the US. But the refueling infrastructure has to be in place before developed nations can embark on the hydrogen highway.
The switchover to a new power system could be the most dramatic change in powered transport the world has seen: 590m cars would be replaced. But it is unlikely before 2030. In the meantime, consumers will be offered hybrids or cars that run on ethanol. Whether they go for them in a big way remains to be seen. Car manufacturers are all to aware that the road to a zero-emission, energy efficient utopia is littered with ideas that never caught on.
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