Seattle Pumps Up Biodiesel Salesby Peggy Andersen
The Oregonian - November 28, 2005
City's refiners work to corner 'green' fuel market
The Pacific Northwest loves being green.
Recycling got an early start here. Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks has scrambled to provide bird-friendly shade-grown coffee. State forestlands were the first in the West to earn "green certification" for environmentally sound management.
Now, with gasoline prices to wallet-busting ranges and petroleum tainted in many minds by violence in the Mideast, demand for biodiesel is booming.
The vegetable oil-based fuel can be burned in place of regular diesel or mixed in varying blends, with 20 percent biodiesel the most common ratio.
The blends are a little pricier than petroleum diesel but loaded with "green" cachet -- after all, it's made from soy or canola or recycled restaurant oils.
"Almost all of our customers run the highest blend that they can. Seattle is kind of unique in the nation," with private users pressing for the highest blends possible, said Dan Freeman of Dr. Dan's Fuelwerks in Ballard. "We have the highest concentration of individual users in the nation in the Puget Sound area."
Why buy it?
"Environmental reasons, political reasons, every reason," said Seattle landscaper Ann Magnano, one of Freeman's customers. "It's about giving farmers the opportunity to keep farming ... helping the planet."
"I'd rather pay American farmers than Saudi kings," said Shoreline resident Jeff Van Horn, who also likes using the cleaner fuel around his kids.
Biodiesel is available at specialty stations such as Freeman's and at a few regular stations and some heating oil suppliers.
But it's going to be a while before biodiesel goes mainstream in the United States. At this point, somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent of the nation's registered vehicles are diesel -- well below the 49 percent in Europe, where higher gasoline prices long ago made diesel's 30 percent to 40 percent greater fuel efficiency appealing.
Meanwhile, the country isn't capable of replacing even the petroleum diesel it already uses with homegrown biodiesel.
"We don't have the acreage, the production capacity," said Peter Murchie at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Washington and Oregon hope to get in on the ground floor of domestic biodiesel production.
"We're trying to build a whole industry in this state, from growing to crushing to refining to using," said Matt Steuerwalt, energy aide to Gov. Christine Gregoire.
Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia are all using biodiesel for at least some of their public transit and service vehicles.
But there've been some supply problems, said Jim Boone, maintenance manager for Seattle's Metro Transit, which runs 340 of its 1,400 buses on B5 biodiesel, a mix of 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent ultralow-sulfur petroleum diesel.
"They're not making enough of it yet," Boone said. "Sometimes we can't get it."
With two new 35-million- gallon-a-year plants coming on line in Minnesota, and more in other states, shortages should be less of a problem, said spokeswoman Jenna Higgins at the National Biodiesel Board in Washington, D.C.
Washington officials are interested in canola oil as a source of biodiesel because it isn't as vulnerable to jelling at low temperatures as soy oil, the source of about 90 percent of U.S. biodiesel.
A Washington State Ferries test of B20 was scrapped when operators ran into what they called "a butterscotch mousse" of "brownish slime" in ferries where one wall of fuel tanks was the outer skin of the boat -- exposed to the chilly water of Puget Sound.
Fuel filters that were usually changed every couple of months were being replaced three or four times a day, said Paul Brodeur, the system's operating program port engineer.
"It's a learning process," Brodeur said. "People are trying different things. Europe is about five years ahead of us and we're about five years ahead of Canada."
Biodiesel can also be made from recycled vegetable oil used, for example, to make french fries.
The relative simplicity of making biodiesel fuel has raised concerns that amateur refiners may undermine the industry's reputation by producing fuel that's unreliable.
The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a $70,000 grant to a project called Bio-49 Degrees that is teaching technical college students in Washington and British Columbia how to refine used oil from restaurants with mini-refinery equipment made by Bruce Barbour of Bellingham. Barbour works for the state Ecology Department.
"The independents are not an issue for EPA," said Peter Murchie, who heads up the agency's "diesel team" and is co-coordinator of the West Coast Collaborative, a program that encourages production of alternative fuels.
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