Regardless of the price of oil, the time to change consumption behavior is now. As I mentioned in a column in April, National Renewable Energy Laboratories, a research wing of the Department of Energy, claims that there are 2 to 4 million gallons of used cooking oil, and 6 to 8 million gallons of trap grease, that can be used for biodiesel fuel each year in the United States. And that figure doesn't include the tons of fuel we can get from growing soybeans.
New York City, through the work of Councilman James Gennaro, now sees almost all of its government vehicles running on a blend of low-sulfur diesel fuel and biodiesel.
"We've already done that," explains Gennaro, "in New York City. Our vehicles are using biofuels and low-sulfur diesel fuel as a result of an alternative fuels law that I wrote in 2005. In terms of other sectors, where city government can make a difference, our next target would be in our heating oil."
The American Lung Association has named biodiesel a Clean Air Choice (their own category of safe energy alternatives), saying "biodiesel is cleaner burning than petroleum diesel. In higher concentrations it can significantly reduce air toxins and other harmful emissions. It is a tool that can help lessen our exposure to these air pollutants."
Retail biodiesel pumps will mean that people driving diesel engines can fill up at these types of stations. Up until now, most retail pumps were in Europe – roughly 85 percent of the available pumps world-wide. Biodiesel pumps sell fuel at about 12 cents less than straight petroleum. The benefits in price are going to vary, however, but there is certainly no increase in price. Gennaro isn't sure how wide spread the usage of retail biodiesel will be right now, since most people do not drive diesel engines. But he is quick to point out that the city has made big advancements in regard to cleaner transportation.
Why not have 100 percent biodiesel? Why only 5 to 20 percent?
In order to keep your diesel engine – or home heating system – you can use up to 20 percent of biodiesel and it will blend with regular diesel fuel without any changes in the engine or heating unit. Once you climb to a higher percentage, you need a special biodiesel engine because biodiesel can gel if it is not heated enough.
What Gennaro is up against almost constantly is the fear that biofuels might be more harmful, as it is such a new concept. He wants to see all heating units in the city using a biodiesel blend at some point.
"This would go beyond just government, eventually involving all heating units in New York City,” explains Gennaro. “We want to do this because furnaces are used all year anyway when it comes to big buildings. We have a situation in New York City where most of our pollution comes from buildings. Seventy-nine percent of our greenhouse gasses come from buildings."
To put the bioheat importance into perspective, consider this: if every home in the United States were using a B5 biodiesel blend (5 percent), it would be equivalent to 700,000 fewer cars on the road. It would be 500 million fewer barrels of foreign produced fossil fuel petroleum.
Is this all from cooking oil? No, of course not. We can get a great deal of heating oil and diesel fuel from cooking oil, but there are even greater quantities in the soybean and vegetable oil. You've read the good and bad arguments about corn ethanol. You've heard that with ethanol, you really do not get that much energy form corn when you factor in the energy it takes to harvest it.
The ratio is roughly 1:1.34, meaning for every BTU of energy to make ethanol, we get .34 of added energy. It's like eating crabs, they taste good but it's generally too much work – not enough return. But the soybean is a different ballgame. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the soybean gives us a 1:3.20 yield. Now that's worth it.
One more thing to remember about using soybeans for energy: the soybean can still be used as a protein in foods after the oil is extracted. This is not the case with corn. Corn is a relative one-trick pony. If used for energy, it is not used as food.
How does this help New York? In harder pressed economic areas, like in upstate New York, and in all of our public buildings in the state, we can move toward the B20 blend and burn cleaner. Gennaro explains that once bioheat is mandated, there will be a savings to the consumer because they would all benefit from the tax credit.
"The imperative to go green," says Gennaro "is so ingrained in the public mind now that there is no turning back. Look how far we've come in the last few years. Now we have elected officials that have an understanding of green fuels, that was not the case ten years ago."