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An interview with a biodiesel fueler

It’s being touted by everyone from Julia Roberts to Barack Obama, it can be made from vegetable oils or animal fats, and for may Americans biodiesel is a very viable solution to a cleaner environment and energy independenace. faircompanies talked to Doron Amiran.

In 1999, only half a million gallons were sold in the US, in 2005 that number hit 75 million, and today there are over 600 stations in the US, a six-fold increase from 2002.

We visited one such fueling station in Hopland, CA (California currently has 31 biodiesel stations) run by the non-profit Solar Living Institute where the institute’s program director Doron Amiran talked about the blend, Rudolf Diesel, Hummers and the petroleum industry “dinasours”.

Doron Amiran: We’ve had biodiesel for about two and a half years, here at the solar living center, here in Hopland. People drive up and fuel just like a regular gas station except no gas. (chuckles)

faircompanies: And what made you think to start selling biodiesel?

Well we’ve been really lucky that we have a lot of partnerships and relationships with local organizations and businesses; and one of the local businesses that’s here in Mendecino County is a biodiesel manufacturer and they were looking to increase their distribution.

Since we get close to 200,000 visitors a year already stopping by the site, they thought this would be a great place to install biodiesel fuelling. So that’s exactly what we did.

We installed a tank; it’s full of recycled vegetable oil, and a standard pump, so that it’s not too intimidating for people: it’s got the usual kind of handle on it. We don’t have the credit card reader yet, so we’re not quite 24 hours yet. We’re open daily, 7 days a week. People drive up, hand us their credit cards and fill up on carbon neutral biodiesel.

What is it? Is it vegetable oil?

Yeah. Biodiesel is the blend of vegetable oil, either virgin stock, or recycled vegetable oil, that is blended with a little bit of alcohol, methanol usually, not rum or gin, just in case you were worried about wasting such a precious resource. So you take methanol, you take the biodiesel: here’s the thing, vegetable oil can be used in diesel vehicles.

As a matter of fact, the original diesel vehicles, diesel engines, were designed to run on vegetable oil. Rudolf Diesel in the 1890’s, Paris World Fair, a lot of people know this story: he’s like “Here’s a fuel that could liberate farmers from the evil grip of the petroleum companies.”

The petroleum companies immediately bought up the technology and converted it into a petroleum technology. So, what we think of as conventional diesel is actually an alternative to the original design of the motor, which was vegetable oil.

The problem with vegetable oil is that it tends to get really thick at low temperatures. So, ‘cold starts’ is an issue, low temperature driving is an issue. What’s been discovered in the last years, is that if you take that vegetable oil, blend it with methanol or ethanol or some other type of alcohol, include a little bit of a catalyst: a chemical process occurs in which the vegetable molecule and the alcohol molecule bind together and then they form a much more viscous and lubricating type of product that does start at cold temperatures, and does run at cold temperatures. You don’t have to pre-heat the motor. Basically, you just pump the biodiesel directly into a diesel vehicle. 100% biodiesel, 80% diesel, 20% biodiesel, 20 -80, 80-20, 50-50, it doesn’t matter! Any blend, in the tank, turn the key, you’re driving on grease, free from what we call “dino-diesel”.

In really cold areas, do you have to heat it up a little bit?

Sure. Sure, well if the temperatures get cold enough, as many people know you’ve got to pre-heat a gas engine even. I mean, the folks in Minnesota, and the like, they have those cords that snake out from underneath their hoods, and plug in their vehicles. Now, in the case of biodiesel, yes, you’re correct. In lower temperatures, the blend needs to be adjusted. If the temperature is going to drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, what they generally will do is increase the alcohol ratio to vegetable oil ratio in order to provide a winterized biodiesel blend. But with that taken care of, then absolutely it can run in any temperatures.

And this is just for biodiesel cars?

Just for diesel cars. All diesel cars, now the biofuel most typically used in the case of gasoline is ethanol. And ethanol is also a biofuel, meaning a fuel made from biological product as opposed to fossil fuel. ethanol like biodiesel can be blended with regular diesel; ethanol can be blended with gasoline. In fact, most gasoline in the United States now contains some proportion of ethanol.

And how’s it going? Are people buying? Are there a lot of customers?

Oh yeah. Yeah, sometimes we actually have vehicles lined up here. We fuelled up everything form little Jettas to old Mercedes Benz. We actually even had a Hummer, diesel Hummer fuelled up here, sort of ironic: a biodiesel-Hummer, this Austrian military vehicle. We’ve fuelled up tractors. We’ve fuelled up people’s 55 gallon drums to take back to their ranches and their farms, to run their farm equipment. We’re selling several thousand gallons a month. So we’re not quite Exxon yet, but we’re on our way.

The biodiesel movement in general, here in the United States, and in Europe for a matter of fact, in Germany, for example, there are over two thousand conventional fuelling stations that offer biodiesel or biodiesel blends. Here in the United States, that’s becoming more and more common. A lot of heating oil on the East coat, even without people knowing it, is being blended in what’s known as a B-20 blend, in other words, 20% biodiesel and 80% conventional diesel. So that already is a major step in the right direction. It’s reducing diesel consumption by 20%, it’s reducing emissions by 20%, it’s reducing carbon dioxide net emissions by 20%. All of that kind of stuff is a good thing.

We’re starting to see fuelling stations here in the United States offer diesel, gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, B-5, B-20, B-100. So we really feel that we’re sort of the tip of the wedge and what we hope is that in a few years we are not going to need to have a biodiesel fuelling station at the Solar Living Institute, because you’ll just be able to drive up to your neighbourhood gas station/grease station and just fuel up on the fuel of your choice. So we’re really just trying to push the envelope here, it’s what we’re trying to do.

Are there some major companies, or major fuelling gas stations that are doing this?

So far, we’re not seeing any of what you will call the ‘big, big boys.’ They are getting more involved in ethanol. BP in particular, which is trying to re-brand itself from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, you may have noticed that in their campaigns. They’re very aggressively pursuing solar. It’s mostly, once again, the European companies, Shell and BP. Not so much the American oil companies who are kind of Dinosaurs in a way. So we’re seeing that happening.

Now, there are some larger companies that are getting involved in biodiesel. Not the big fuel companies, but there is a company that just got founded by country musician Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson has started a company in Texas called Bio-Willie, and they’re setting up a series of truck-stops throughout the country, where truckers can drive up and fuel up on B-5, B-20, or B-100, as is their preference.

And the whole debate between biodiesel and ethanol, do you get involved in that?

Yeah, you know, in my mind it’s not an either or. I don’t think our solution to our energy problem is to be found in any single technology or in any single fuel source. I don’t think there’s a “silver bullet.” I think that a comprehensive approach is what’s needed. Obviously, we have a massive amount of diesel vehicles, both on road and off road. And if people stop for a minute and think about all of the caterpillar tractors and earth movers and bull dozers, and front-end loaders, and cranes…all that runs on diesel.

So biodiesel is a major, major component of resolving that part of our fuel mix. As far as on road vehicles in the United States, unlike in Europe where new diesel vehicles make up over 50% of new vehicle sales, here in the United States diesel vehicles are a small proportion of on road. Therefore, solutions like ethanol, electrics, hybrid electrics, plug-in hybrids, there’s a whole variety, different mix, different technology that’s available now, and what we’re trying to emphasize here is what’s available now. What’s available 10 or 20 years down the road will be nice 10 or 20 years from now.

But all of us have choices today that we can make that can reduce our ecological footprint, reduce our carbon footprint and that’s what we’re encouraging people to do.