November 19, 2007 | General

Fleets Fuel Up On Biodiesel Blends


BioCycle November 2007, Vol. 48, No. 11, p. 61
In 2006, East Tennesseans used the equivalent of roughly two million gallons of B100 biodiesel. Most was consumed by fleets which have blends delivered directly to their sites.
Jonathan Overly

OVER the past four years, more and more corporate, government and farm fleets across East Tennessee have begun to use biodiesel blends in their vehicles and equipment. This expansion is a result of a cooperative effort involving the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition (ETCFC), fuel suppliers and the fleets themselves. Along the way, certain community fleets and suppliers have assumed leadership roles in boosting the region’s use of this fuel.
The East Tennessee region comprises about one-third of the state’s 95 counties and roughly one-third of the state’s land area. ETCFC divides the East Tennessee region into three general areas: central, southeastern, and northeastern.
In central East Tennessee, Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) has made the transition to B20, as did several fleets and fuel suppliers in Blount County, which includes a substantial portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Calloway Oil began working with the cities of Alcoa and Maryville and the Blount County Highway Department through a pilot program in 2004. In each case, two to four of their fleet’s vehicles were put into service using B20 supplied via a pump at Calloway Oil’s main fuel farm. At the same time, McNutt Oil in Blount County also was developing the capability to hold B100 (still 100 percent biodiesel at that time) to supply several local fleets with biodiesel blends. McNutt became the region’s first supplier to operate public B20 stations, opening three stations in three different counties at one time in 2004.
Ultimately, Blount County’s three government fleets switched all their diesel vehicles (a total of about 280) over to B20. During the same time period, in neighboring Sevier County, the cities of Sevierville and Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park also made the transitions to B20 in their fleets, which include 190 vehicles.
In the northeastern region, following discussions with the ETCFC in 2004, Eastman Chemical Company also made the move to biodiesel. By spring 2005, Eastman was fueling 200 heavy-duty diesel trucks and another 150 pieces of diesel equipment with B20. The company has since begun fueling its five onsite locomotives with B20, joining a small handful of rail fleets in the nation that use a biodiesel blend. Eastman’s leadership really helped establish biodiesel in this region, which now has eight sizeable fleets using the fuel. Two of those fleets are the school buses for the City of Johnson City and the Carter County school system. The ETCFC is currently in discussions with more than a dozen additional fleet operators in that area alone who are considering the move to biodiesel.
Benton Oil of Chattanooga has played a similar leadership role in the southeastern region. Ross Benton of Benton Oil took an interest in biodiesel in 2004 and contacted the ETCFC to forge a collaborative relationship. The City of Chattanooga was the first of the largest four cities in Tennessee to move all of its diesel equipment (almost 400 pieces) to a biodiesel blend. Per the ETCFC’s records, Benton Oil is the largest provider of biodiesel into the East Tennessee market.
REACHING FLEET MANAGERS
All along the way, ETCFC has promoted this cleaner-burning, renewable, American fuel by directly contacting fleet managers across the region. About 80 to 90 fleets in East Tennessee are currently using biodiesel blends; discussions are ongoing with personnel in about another 50 fleets who are considering the move to this alternative fuel.
Biodiesel workshops are among ETCFC’s more effective tools for bolstering interest in the fuel. Over the last four years, workshops have been held in 10 cities; three additional ones are planned for the coming six months. These half-day workshops start with a basic explanation of the benefits of using biodiesel, which accrue to the fleet as well as the wider community and nation through improved air quality and reduced reliance on foreign sources of oil. The workshops also bring in current biodiesel users and fuel suppliers, who can relate their experiences. ETCFC encourages the local fleet managers who speak at these events to openly discuss all the pros and cons of their transition to biodiesel, explain the steps involved, and articulate the reasoning behind the decision. While emissions reductions or the potential of some cost savings are typically part of their story, these participants often cite the environment and our nation’s overdependence on foreign sources of oil as compelling reasons for making the switch.
The workshops make it clear that any formulation that contains 20 percent or less of biodiesel does not require any modifications to standard diesel engines. They also emphasize the reality that biodiesel likely will never replace all use of diesel but that any gains will help curb our nation’s appetite for petroleum and spur greater interest in and use of renewable vehicle fuels.
Critical to the success of the move to biodiesel blends, however, are: 1) Attention to the cleanliness of the fleet’s tanks before biodiesel blending; and 2) Awareness that fuel filters may need to be replaced after introducing the blend. The lower the percentage of biodiesel in the mix, the less likely the fuel filters will need to be replaced. Additionally, fleet managers need to be aware of any language in the engine manufacturers’ warranty statements that pertain to use of biodiesel blends and what those statements mean with regard to using a blend. Particularly, diesel equipment manufacturers don’t warrant fuels; they warrant materials and workmanship. In the vast majority of cases, using a quality biodiesel in the blend shouldn’t result in any problems related to the fuel.
BIODIESEL PRODUCTION PLANTS
No large-scale biodiesel production facilities are currently operating in East Tennessee, however three will soon be operational. Nu-Energie LLC has constructed a biodiesel plant in southeastern Hawkins County that will use virgin soybean oil as a feedstock. Production capacity is projected to be three million gallons/year for Phase 1.
Northington Energy, based in the state of Wyoming, constructed a 7,500-square-foot biodiesel plant in Morgan County to convert soybean oil into biodiesel. Company officials decided to build in East Tennessee because of its interstate access and the local availability of crops, including soybeans. The plant will have the capacity to produce as much as six million gallons of biodiesel annually.
SunsOil is building a plant on the Tennessee-Georgia border, which was projected to have limited operations in 2007. Anticipated production in 2008 is five million gallons. The company plans to use regionally supplied vegetable oils and animal fats.
These facilities, once operational, will reduce costs by reducing the transport distance required to bring the raw materials to their plants. Consider, for instance, that most biodiesel currently arriving in East Tennessee travels 200 to 600 miles from the production facilities. All of the region’s up-and-coming producers recognize the need to develop relationships with local soybean producers (or other potential oil providers) to further biodiesel production and use in the local economy.
In 2006, East Tennesseans consumed the equivalent of roughly two million gallons of B100. The vast majority of that was used by fleets that have blends delivered directly to their sites, instead of from public filling stations. However, there are now about 25 public stations in East Tennessee selling B5, B10, B20, and B99.9. Over the past several years, biodiesel prices have fluctuated but are on average competitive with petroleum-based diesel fuels. This pricing has helped drive the market for the alternative fuel. Throughout most of 2007, however, biodiesel prices were comparable to or slightly higher than conventional diesel, which has caused a decline in consumption, even though the number of fleets using the alternative fuel has increased.
The partnership formed among the ETCFC, fuel suppliers and fleet operators got a boost from Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen when he formed the state’s Interagency Alternative Fuels Working Group. The task force was created in 2006. Adding them to the partnership mix is already, and should continue, helping the “Volunteer State” to be proactive in moving biodiesel into use.
Jonathan Overly is the executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition (jgoverly@utk.edu or 865-974-3625) and a researcher with the University of Tennessee’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, where the ETCFC is housed. The ETCFC is also one of 90 U.S. DOE Clean Cities coalitions throughout the country. Visit these Websites to read more about the ETCFC (www.ETCleanFuels.org) or the Clean Cities program (www.eere.energy.gov/cleancities/).


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