Biodiesel producers get $1 from the federal government for each gallon they produce. So while building a biodiesel plant requires a substantial investment, the short- and long-term benefits can make the initial payout worthwhile for public fleets. Photo: Greenline Industries

As increasing fuel costs, mounting environmental concerns, and the need to refurbish ailing fleets as the newer ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) take their toll on engines, fleet managers are seeking alternatives that won't destroy carefully negotiated budgets.

One solution is biodiesel, and it's available right now.

Because it lacks the lubricity that the older standard provided, engines that run on ULSD require more maintenance, resulting in more down-time and less efficiency. With its high lubricity, biodiesel alleviates most of those problems. It mixes well with petroleum diesel fuel, even improving it in many ways. All engine manufacturers allow up to 5% biodiesel without any affect on warranty.

Because biodiesel is a strong solvent, its cleaning effect on older engines will produce junk that may clog filters for the first 100 hours of use. Maintenance teams recommend an aggressive filter change program until the engines are clean.

The question then becomes: where to get this miracle drug? Biodiesel is not available everywhere, nor is it welcome in America's pipelines. It must be shipped, trucked, or barged. The smart move is to make your own in an ASTM-certified plant using available and imported feedstocks—any form of biologically produced natural oils meeting certain chemical criteria (the most popular is soy oil; other feedstocks include canola and palm oils, and waste oils from restaurants). In other words, build the plant where you need the fuel: at your fleet fueling station.

A small biodiesel plant—with a capacity around 3 million gallons annually, on 2–3 acres—can be built for several million dollars, depending on production needs. It can be put almost anywhere near a rail-yard for bringing in the feedstocks required to produce the fuel. In some cases, the feedstock goes right from the barges into the processor.

For example, the city of Oakland, Calif., has access to huge amounts of natural oils (i.e. chicken fat from processing plants) that can be converted. An international port facility brings in feedstocks from around the world, and a comprehensive rail network feeds into a million-truck container system. The city has been investigating how to cut down on fuel costs, move some of the accumulated waste products, and avoid dumping biologically useful items into the landfills. Biodiesel might just be the answer.

The favored theory for funding such a plant is a joint private sector, municipal bond issue. Biodiesel projects get the public's support because it's a clean fuel; making and using it does not pollute the environment. Biodiesel plants also can be money makers. Currently, and into the next three or four years, a biodiesel producer gets $1 from the federal government for each gallon produced. The amount spent on feedstock (from $0 for recycled oils to $3 for vegetable oils) makes it competitive with existing petroleum products.

Choosing the right biodiesel production system is important. There are two types of facilities. The first—flow-through continuous production—is best suited for medium to large amounts of fuel production; the second, older technology—batch production—is based on the home brewing systems of early days, and it allows small amounts to be run and used. Also, any type of waterless system does not require wastewater processing downstream of the unit. Such a system has been developed by Greenline Industries, a biodiesel firm that has installed waterless-wash facilities across the globe.

If elected officials and public works departments are serious about cleaning up their systems, they will form alliances with farmers, oil shippers, and fuel distributors to ensure that the biggest plants are built within walking distance of distribution systems. The day will come when every truck, boat, or train coming into the utility will be switched to a biodiesel auxiliary tank as it transits through an urban area. Every crane, generator, compressor, or pump will be automatically filled with clean-burning biodiesel blends.

No other fuel need apply.

— Peter Brown is an alternative energy marketing consultant with a background in nuclear, hydro, solar, and bio-fuel power.