In October, I toured Newport Biodiesel, and spoke with its founder, Nat Harris. Newport Biodiesel is a remarkable local business that takes Waste Vegetable Oil from restaurants across Rhode Island and converts it to ASTM certified Biodiesel, which then heats homes and powers automobiles across New England. When we met, Nat talked about some of the difficulties many in the biodiesel industry faced when the $1/gallon biodiesel Federal Tax Credit expired in January 2010. However, Nat Harris and the rest of the nacent biodiesel industry are undoubtedly celebrating the retroactive extension of the tax credit through 2011, which will become official when the President signs the tax bill.
Why is biodiesel important? I wrote about it here in detail, but for a quick primer, biodiesel emits fewer pollutants when it is burned; because it is created from waste products and plant matter, it has less than 50% of the life cycle carbon emissions than petroluem-based fuels. This is not ethanol, it is an Advanced Biofuel that can be blended with petro-fuel to work year ’round. More importantly, this is a domestic industry that takes material out of the waste stream and resuses it. Biodiesel is sustainability. And for President Obama, it is another victory in a Lame Duck session that is surprisingly bountiful. The Senate may even have enough votes to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this weekend.
Last week I attended an event sponsored by the Ocean State Clean Cities program, an stakeholder group sponsored by the Department of Energy. Experts in diesel technology and biodiesel fuel attended, as well as some local businessmen from Newport Biodiesel and some companies that sell biodiesel for home heating.
I drive a Volkswagon TDI Jetta Wagon, which I purchased for both efficiency and its flexibility. VW allows the use of B5 Biodiesel under its warranties, so I was curious to learn more about the potential of this fuel. Newport Biodiesel collects waste oil from restaurants around Rhode Island, and coverts it to biodiesel, meeting the specifications of the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM), which provides quality standards for fuels. Rich Cregar, who has worked on diesel engines and alternative fuels since the 1970s, now teaches at several universities. He is touring the country on behalf of the DofE to tout the benefits of biodiesel. This is from an account of the event in ecori.org:
‘According to Cregar, diesel engines are inherently 25 percent more efficient than gasoline engines. By combining hybrid technology with clean diesel technology, he believes we can reduce emissions by more than 40 percent over baseline gasoline automobiles. As a fuel, biodiesel holds great potential. Cregar sees the biggest potential in biodiesel produced from algae. While an acre of soybeans, the leading feedstock of biodiesel, gives 55 gallons of fuel, an acre of algae biomass can give up to 5,000 gallons. “Gasoline on a full life-cycle basis has a negative energy gradient,” Cregar said. “You actually lose about 26 percent of the energy you take out of the ground. For every hundred units of energy put into biodiesel, 400 energy units are produced. No other fuel source comes close.”’
Think about it – biodiesel is more efficient as a fuel than any other substance we have now. We can convert it from waste vegetable oil, make it from soybeans, and soon make it from algae. We do not need the Fifth Fleet to defend it. It gives off less than half of the CO2 emissions over its lifecycle than petroleum diesel. It holds great potential as a fuel in the near term. Right now in Rhode Island, I can get B20 and B99 at three locations within 25 miles of my house. Unfortunately, I have to drive to Groton, CT to get B5, which VW allows. However, diesel engines can be designed to handle the higher viscosity of the biodiesel. Clean diesel technology is a bit more expensive than gasoline engines, but the more diesels that get on the road, the lower those costs will go. I think biodiesel has a bright future. As the poster above, which first appeared during WWII and it part of an exhibit at the Minneapolis Public Library, shows, converting waste oil to useful material is nothing new.