October 22, 2004 | General

Gearing Up Biodiesel Development

BioCycle October 2004, Vol. 45, No. 10, p. 38
Faced with air pollution problems, North Carolina’s high-tech Research Triangle focuses on making and utilizing a blend of fuel derived from organic feedstocks.
Dan Emerson

AS THE HOME of Duke University and other top research institutions, North Carolina’s Piedmont Triangle has become one of the high-tech “meccas” in North America. Recently, the region has also been facing a major challenge that comes with growth – air pollution. Not surprisingly, the area has turned to leading-edge technology as a possible solution – biodiesel fuel made from organic feedstocks.
In May 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency gave 10 Piedmont Triad counties notice that polluted air must be cleaned up or face fines. As part of the requirements, the federal government said each city must use some type of alternative fuel to power a small percentage of its fleet.
Several public entities in the Piedmont area, including the state of North Carolina, have been using biodiesel in their vehicle fleets, aided by federal grants to help cover the cost difference between biodiesel and standard diesel fuel. Biodiesel is also being used by a growing number of area farmers, with plans in the works for plants that will produce biodiesel from local crops and used cooking oil, for sale in the region.
Last year, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) awarded $183, 000 through a federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant to seven organizations in the Raleigh-Durham area (part of a clean air consortium of 31 Triad communities) as an incentive to expand the use of B20, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel fuel. NCDOT itself uses biodiesel in more than 11,000 of its on-and off-road vehicles.
In the fall of 2002, Greensboro, North Carolina switched to biodiesel for its fleet of 700 garbage trucks. According to Gary Smith, the city’s fleet manager, the change cost taxpayers nothing but the increased per gallon cost of 10 cents. The $30,000 cost to switch is cheaper than converting to natural gas, which would have required spending $200,000 on new equipment alone, he notes. To date, the city has used more than one million gallons of biodiesel.
Greensboro also examined other ways to reduce dependence on foreign oil, save money and further reduce pollution. In spring 2003, the city purchased two gas-electric hybrid automobiles. The vehicles average between 36 and 39 miles per gallon. In May, Greensboro won a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Clean Cities National Partner Award and was inducted into the Clean Cities Hall of Fame. Greensboro also has been selected one of three finalists for the DOE Clean Cities National Partner Award for Excellence in advancing biodiesel.
The Greensboro School District has been serving as a biodiesel test fleet for the Triangle J Council of Governments in the Raleigh-Durham area, using $185,000 in grant funding from the federal and state governments. The experiment has been a success, according to Scott Denton, the district’s director of transportation services. “The drivers didn’t notice much difference in performance.” Mileage was about the same as for regular diesel — 6.6 miles/gallon. The state Department of Public Instruction has agreed to fund the difference again during this school year (2004-05). If the cost of biodiesel can be brought down in the future “we definitely will use it more,” Denton says.
Other biodiesel users in the area include the Durham Public Schools (DPS) and Duke University. DPS is running all its 284 school buses on B20 and Duke Transportation Services is running its 44 buses on B20. Duke uses more than 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.
A biodiesel web site lists 23 retailers and distributors of biodiesel in North Carolina. The two primary marketers of biodiesel in the state are Aurora, North Carolina-based Potter Oil Co. and World Energy, a Chelsea, Massachusetts-based firm. Potter Oil began selling biodiesel in early 2003, according to vice president Brian Potter. It buys the soy-based fuel in 25,000-gallon quantities from the local Grain Growers Cooperative – a farmer’s group that buys it wholesale from the West Central Soy plant in Royalston, Iowa – and sells it in blends from B-2 to B-20. More than 100 farmers in Potter’s distribution area use biodiesel. “Farmers use a lot of fuel; they’re our biggest customers,” says Potter. The company is “very pleased” with the consumer response to the ASTM-approved fuel it sells, he says.
To expand the market further, “price is the big hang-up right now,” Potter says. Historically, the B-20 blend has been 10 to 15 cents above the price of regular fuel; “now we’re in the 40 to 50 cent range. A lot of municipalities would like to use it but the cost of fuel is already high, and they can’t afford a few more cents per gallon for biodiesel.”
In the future, if the federal government decides to provide more price subsidies for biodiesel, “demand could go through the roof,” Potter predicts. “I think at some point the price is going to become competitive, as the price of fuel keeps going up. In the next five years, we may reach an equilibrium point.”
Another factor that Potter believes will stimulate more use of biodiesel is the impact of new EPA emissions standards for diesel fuel, set to take effect in 2007. The standards will lower the allowable amount of sulfur — used as an antiwear additive in fuel – to .015 percent. The high lubricity of nonpolluting biodiesel makes it an ideal replacement for diesel containing sulfur, Potter explains.
The biodiesel industry in North Carolina is slated to receive a major boost in the form of an investment by the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit foundation established to receive and distribute a portion of the funds North Carolina receives as a result of the settlement of North Carolina vs. Philip Morris Corp. In 2002, the Foundation provided start-up assistance to help Potter’s supplier, the Grain Growers Cooperative, test the market for biodiesel, and has committed to investing up to $10 million in a biodiesel plant.
The Cooperative, which has been selling biodiesel in blends from B-2 to B-20, wants to construct a plant in eastern North Carolina to produce soy diesel and marketable by-products, such as livestock feed. Cooperative CEO Sam Lee says he expects the facility to be similar to the 15-million gallon capacity plant that another farmers’ co-op, West Central Soy, operates in Iowa. “West Central is the second largest producer of soy diesel fuel in the country. They have really been helpful, and we have spent a lot of time looking at their operation.” As of late September, the Cooperative was still working on its business plan and preparing to launch a funding drive.
Jim Wilder, executive vice-president of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, says that, as demand for biodiesel grows, “we’re going to need all the feedstock we can get,” including other oil crops such as peanuts, corn, cottonseed and grapeseed. However he notes that “soy is by far the greatest source of fat that can be converted into biodiesel. All of those other crops would probably account for not more than 15 to 20 percent of what would be available from soy alone.” Spent cooking oils, especially from institutional sources such as hospitals, universities and military bases, would be another important source category, he notes. “We will need to use everything that makes sense to make biodiesel, to meet the demand we think is coming, as the industry matures.”
Meanwhile, the Human Kindness Foundation (HKF), a Durham-based nonprofit group dedicated to providing jobs for ex-convicts, is planning to open a plant to convert used cooking oil to biodiesel. Under the auspices of a spinoff foundation, the group is converting a donated, 10,000 square foot factory for that purpose, according to Bo Lozoff, director of both foundations. “We came to this through the back door. We had never heard of biodiesel before last year. We were casting about for what kind of products would work for our job training program, and somebody mentioned biodiesel.”
Further investigation indicated biodiesel “would be a win-win thing for this area; we’re in a nonattainment area and need more emphasis on alternative fuels,” Lozoff explains. With $200,000 in hand for the project, the group is gearing up its fundraising effort to raise the $1 million needed to retrofit and equip the refinery. HKF partnered with the local Orange County government to assess the potential yellow-grease supply from the county’s more than 400 institutional kitchens. The results were promising, Lozoff says.
The group has contracted to collect thousands of gallons of yellow grease from this fall’s North Carolina State Fair, which will be refined by a subcontractor to make about 10,000 gallons of biofuel (the foundation’s plant won’t be ready to operate until late this year.) Lozoff says the foundation is “creating a community business model” which will use locally generated grease to make one to three million gallons per year, for sale to schools and businesses in the region. “A lot of people are enthusiastic about it,” he adds.
Promoting interest in biofuels is one of the missions of Piedmont Biofuels, a small, grassroots co-op in Moncure, North Carolina, which has been refining and selling small quantities of biodiesel made from used frying oil. The co-op, formed in 2001, also researches methods to convert various forms of organic matter to biofuel. The group uses a 1,600 gallon tanker to distribute biodiesel it buys from a larger refinery.
The co-op hopes to develop three biodiesel pump sites in Lee County, according to cofounder Lyle Estill. The group also has two 500-gallon tanks, with filters and pumping equipment, which they would like to set up in Lee County.
BIODIESEL can be processed from any type of animal fats and plant oils. A list developed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture of potential domestic resources includes: Used cooking oils from restaurants (yellow grease); Animal fats – i.e., lard, tallow, chicken fat and fish oils; Off quality and rancid vegetable oils; and Food grade cooking oils, such as soy, canola, palm, peanut, sunflower and other oilseeds.
According to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) based in Jefferson City, Missouri (www., Mid-Atlantic Biodiesel, Inc. broke ground last month for a five million gallon capacity plant in Clayton, Delaware. It will be the first manufacturing plant in the mid-Atlantic region joining 20 dedicated biodiesel plants nationwide. Another 20 are in the planning stage by various private companies and farmer co-ops.
More than 400 major fleets use biodiesel commercially in the U.S., including all four branches of the military, NASA, the National Park Service, U.S. Postal Services and academic institutions like Harvard University. Adds Jenna Higgins of NBB: “About 300 retail filling stations make various biodiesel blends available to the public, and more than 1,000 petroleum distributors carry it nationwide.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently listed websites that provided kits, descriptions, etc. on turning used fats into biodiesel such as: – “For $845, this site will ship you a kit to convert a diesel engine to run on vegetable oil;” – report of its first Greasefest last spring; www. issues – report from a Pennsylvania cyclist on how he “gets 100 mpg on the first soybean oil-burning motorcycle.”

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