It's Fast Food for Your Car
It has been championed by the president and environmentalists alike as a solution to foreign dependency on oil and the ills of fossil fuel.
But biodiesel, a diesel-fuel alternative made from vegetable or animal fats, has had two major problems: At as much as $1 more than regular diesel, it can be hard on the wallet. It can also be hard to find.
Produced mainly in the Midwest, where the soybeans used to make it are plentiful, biodiesel supplies have been limited in the Northeast, and are scant on Cape Cod.
But on the Cape and throughout the country, the drawbacks are disappearing.
Today's Hurricane Katrina-driven fuel prices have narrowed the price gap. The federal energy bill, signed earlier this year, also provides for increased incentives for producing and selling biofuel, starting in 2006.
"It's still a little bit more expensive right now" said Richard Lawrence, a clean energy advocate who works with Cape Cod Self-Reliance, which runs an oil co-op.
He added that he hopes the federal incentives would be passed onto consumers, making biodiesel less expensive than regular diesel. "As soon as the price comes down, we'll be promoting it strongly," he said.
Made from any plant or animal fat -- from canola oil to restaurant grease -- biodiesel can be poured straight into most diesel engines or added to heating oil.
Unlike its sulfur-scented counterpart, it produces little pollution.
"It's less polluting, it cleans your engines and it smells like French fries. What more do you want," asked Marnie Stanton, who works for the Vineyard Conservation Society, a nonprofit conservation group.
Nationwide, sales have increased more than 10 times in the past five years, to at least 50 million gallons in 2005, according to the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo.
At the urging of Cape Cod Self-Reliance and the Vineyard Conservation Society, biodiesel fuel was recently introduced into the commercial market on the Cape.
About a year and a half ago, Loud Fuel Co. in East Falmouth began selling both straight biodiesel and a 20-percent blend for use as heating oil and automotive fuel. The company has about 70 customers, owner Kabraul Tasha said.
This year, both R.M. Packer on Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod Oil in Provincetown began distributing varieties of the fuel to gas stations in their areas.
"We just decided to get our feet wet, get it out there and see what happens," said John White, Cape Cod Oil's office manager.
He said the company has probably sold about 500 gallons of the fuel at a Citgo in North Truro since July.
Packer has been selling biodiesel to two stations on the Vineyard, and has sold a few customers the fuel to use as heating oil.
Currently, much of the biodiesel on the Cape is trucked here by Loud Fuel from Boston, tacking on substantial transportation costs, Tasha said.
But that may soon change.
Osterville resident Allen Giles is drawing up plans and securing financing for what would become one of the first biodiesel production facilities in New England. Meanwhile, a Massachusetts company, Northeast Biodiesel, is building a similar plant in Greenfield, which would be the second in the region, according to the Associated Press.
Giles, whose company is called Lifeguard Biofuels, saw tremendous, largely untapped potential for biodiesel use in the Northeast's heating oil and marine markets.
"The Northeast uses 8 million gallons of heating oil per day," he said, adding that if he could capture a tiny percentage of the market, "we probably would have a really good business."
Having a local supplier would most certainly cut costs, Tasha said.
Yesterday, he was selling 20-percent biodiesel blends for $2.96 per gallon, compared to the state average of $2.87 for regular diesel fuel. He was selling 100-percent biodiesel for about a dollar more than the blend.
The price "should be 10 or 20 cents lower after getting a supplier," Tasha said.
As the difference in price narrows, Stanton said she expects more area residents will be enticed to spring for a cleaner fuel.
"There are enough people who really care about the environment," she said. "So if they can afford to, they would do it."
Lawrence said he's eagerly awaiting both the effects of the tax incentives and having a local supplier -- both for the benefit of consumers, and for the environment.
"It addresses some of the most toxic stuff in our environment, and it does so in a way that's easy to do," he said. "You just pour the stuff in."
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News