In September, Minnesota made history and made a lot of farmers happy when it became the first state to require 2 percent of all diesel fuel sold in the state to come from vegetable oil and waste grease.
Three months later, the mandate was suspended after repeated complaints the fuel was clogging motors. The state recently reinstated the 2 percent requirement, saying quality-control problems with manufacturing the fuel have been fixed.
Biodiesel backers, however, worry episodes like this could scare away consumers before the homegrown fuel industry has a chance to take off. John Plaza, president of Seattle Biodiesel, Washington state’s only processing plant, is pushing for Washington to institute stringent quality-control standards. If the standards used at his facility had been required in Minnesota, “none of that would have happened,” Plaza said, referring to the clogged motors. “Quality control can eliminate all of those issues.”
This week, Washington lawmakers will consider a 2 percent biodiesel requirement. The measure is being touted as both a boon to farmers and the environment, but Plaza hopes lawmakers also will work to ensure that only the highest-quality fuel is sold. “There’s maybe some irrational exuberance now,” Plaza cautioned.
Currently, the only pump that sells biodiesel between Missoula and Seattle is the Pacific Pride cardlock station at 18826 E. Appleway in Spokane Valley. The station sells B20, which contains 20 percent biodiesel made from Midwestern soybean oil. The blend sells for about 20 cents more a gallon than regular diesel because of the need to ship the soybean oil in insulated tanker cars, said Tom Deming, manager of the station.
Once it’s blended, the B20 works well down to 5 degrees, Deming said. Unadulterated, the pure soy oil essentially turns to margarine below 40 degrees. Oil from canola or mustard seeds is slightly more tolerant of cold.
The biggest demand for the B20 has come from Central Valley school buses, but Deming said more and more people are coming to the station looking for biodiesel. “We’re getting the clientele built up. We’ve had a definite increase.”
Although only a tiny fraction of vehicles are using biodiesel in the region, there are probably tens of thousands of cars and trucks in the Inland Northwest capable of running on fuels other than petroleum, according to industry estimates. Most diesel vehicles sold in the past two years by General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and Volvo are factory-approved to run biodiesel blends; new Jeep Liberty vehicles even roll off the assembly line with a 5 percent biodiesel blend in their tanks.
Many newer gasoline-powered cars and trucks are also capable of running on 85 percent ethanol, said Tony Usibelli, director of the energy policy division of the Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.
“We have a lot of those vehicles, but we don’t have the fueling infrastructure here. Ninety-nine percent of those vehicles are not running on anything other than conventional gasoline,” Usibelli said.
According to a recent study conducted by VeraSun Energy Corp., up to 70 percent of owners of so-called flexible fuel vehicles aren’t even aware their cars and trucks can be filled with something other than petroleum-based fuels. An estimated 6 million flexible fuel vehicles are now on the road in the United States, according to federal government estimates.
Despite the recent buzz about biofuel – even Willie Nelson has launched a his own line of “Farm Fresh” diesel stations – the issue isn’t exactly foremost in the minds of many car buyers, said Rick Greene, a salesman at Wendle Ford in Spokane.
“For your average Spokane person, I don’t think that’s right on the front burner now,” he said. “There’s a few. It’s more of us letting them know what’s out there.”
No stations in Spokane sell 85 percent ethanol. The closest pumps are hundreds of miles away in Boise or Helena. Biodiesel advocates complain that oil companies are trying to stymie the industry by refusing to offer consumers the choice of plant-based fuels.
Jon Van Gerpen, who leads the University of Idaho’s biodiesel program, said pumps are becoming common in the Midwest, where most ethanol is produced.
The University of Idaho runs two pickups and a Volkswagen Beetle on 100 percent vegetable oil-based diesel. Nothing special has been done to the vehicles, Van Gerpen said, other than equipping the trucks with 100-gallon supplemental fuel tanks. Whenever the Volkswagen takes a long journey, one of the trucks must follow. Otherwise, it could be a very long walk to the next pump.