VERMONT — The days of sitting in traffic behind smelly, noxious, fumes-spewing diesel trucks and buses could soon be numbered. Fleets of commercial and municipal vehicles throughout the state, from commuter buses and trash haulers to local delivery trucks, have made the switch in recent months to cleaner-burning biodiesel. The nontoxic, biodegradable fuel derived primarily from crop oils produces far fewer greenhouse gases than does petroleum-based diesel. And, as demand grows in Vermont for renewable and domestically produced energy sources, experts say that biodiesel is fast becoming the fuel of choice for eco-minded drivers.
Last week, 1-800-GOT-JUNK became the latest Vermont company to announce it’s now running all its vehicles on biodiesel. The Williston-based recycling and trash-removal firm was one of only 10 GOT-JUNK franchises in the United States chosen by Isuzu Trucks to participate in a six-month pilot project to test the performance of their trucks on the veggie-based fuel.
Company owner Aaron Fastman says he’s wanted to run his two Isuzu trucks on renewable fuel for some time, but couldn’t without nullifying the manufacturer’s warranty. Until now. Isuzu is hoping to join other major manufacturers such as Mercedes, Volkswagen, John Deere, Jeep and Dodge Cummins in certifying that biodiesel and blends are suitable for use in its engines.
Biodiesel, which is typically blended with conventional, or “petro-diesel,” is still pricier at the pump than the fossil-derived stuff — about 8 to 15 cents more per gallon, depending upon the filling station or supplier. But Fastman says he expects to make up the difference in better fuel economy for his trucks, as biodiesel burns cleaner and more efficiently than conventional fuel. “I have friends running biodiesel in their vehicles and they’ve all gained 3 to 5 miles per gallon,” Fastman says. “That may not sound like much, but when you’re running trucks all day long, every mile counts.”
The 1-800-GOT-JUNK trucks, which log about 11,000 miles per year, aren’t even close to being the biggest consumers of biodiesel in the state. In May, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters switched to using a 20 percent blend of biodiesel, known as B20, in its five delivery trucks. According to fleet manager Don Ostler, company trucks log an average of about a half-million miles per year in Vermont alone. As a result, Ostler anticipates the Vermont fleet will use about 50,000 gallons of biodiesel in 2007. Assuming there are no problems with how the trucks perform — Ostler’s drivers tell him they’re even getting “a little more power on the low torque” — the company will probably switch its entire New England fleet over to biodiesel as soon as it’s practical to do so. “The reason we’re using it is to promote it,” says Ostler. “And we’re promoting it so it becomes more mainstream, it creates a demand, and brings the price down.”
Vermont’s biggest biodiesel consumer — for vehicles, anyway — is the Chittenden County Transportation Authority. In April, CCTA began using B20 biodiesel in its fleet of 55 commuter and city buses, which will log 1.37 million miles in 2007. General Manager Chris Cole says that, aside from initially having to replace the buses’ fuel filters more often — biodiesel acts as a natural solvent that scours the gunk out of old diesel engines — the changeover has been seamless.
CCTA’s biodiesel use, when coupled with new federal emissions standards for ultra-low sulfur diesel, as well as super-efficient 2007 engines, will result in “dramatically cleaner” buses running on Vermont’s roads, Cole adds. In fact, he says CCTA held off buying new buses last year to wait for the new version, which emits 95 percent fewer particulates than its predecessor. As Cole puts it, “Sixty of these brand-new buses will have the same emissions output as one of the older buses that we’re retiring.”
All this comes as welcome news to the folks who promote alternative fuels in Vermont. Netaka White is executive director of the Vermont Biofuels Association. He says Vermont is on the verge of a big shift to biodiesel, as demand increases at an exponential rate and a major new supply point in Montréal comes online in the next month or so.
According to White, biodiesel consumption in the Green Mountain State has risen dramatically in recent years — from 55,000 gallons in 2004 to 1.4 million gallons in 2006. This year, the Vermont Biofuels Association projects more than 5 million gallons of biodiesel and biodiesel blends will be sold in the state, either for transportation or to heat homes.
Biodiesel has a number of advantages over other, non-fossil-fuel alternatives, White explains. For one, it can be used with existing technologies and requires no special retrofitting or re-tuning of petro-diesel engines. Moreover, the technology to store, deliver and supply biodiesel is virtually the same as for conventional diesel.
Thus far, the only factors that have prevented wider biodiesel distribution in Vermont are concerns over warranties, the relatively small number of biodiesel distributors — there are only about two dozen fuel dealers statewide, most of them in Chittenden County — lack of public knowledge about the fuel, and its premium cost. “People need to know, and rightfully so, that the product performs as well as petro-diesel,” White says.
But as vehicle manufacturers come on board with biodiesel and major fleets create a steady demand, Vermont could expand both its biodiesel consumption and production. According to White, biodiesel is one of the few fuels that can be sustainably produced in Vermont from oil-seed crops such as soy, canola and sunflowers. He notes that small, community-scale production of biodiesel could meet the home-heating and vehicle-fuel demands for many Vermont farmers, small businesses and consumers. Currently, fewer than 5000 acres of soy are being grown in Vermont, and fewer than 300 acres of sunflowers and canola are in production. Only a tiny fraction of those crops are now being raised for fuel production.
Admittedly, the Green Mountain State will never be a Saudi-scale exporter of crop-based fuels the way the Midwestern states are now. Nevertheless, White believes that crop production for biodiesel could add value for Vermont farmers, without displacing existing food or feed crops. “It’s not about turning good food land into energy land,” he says. “It’s about creating new crop regimes and value-adding opportunities for farmers.”
And, while White admits that biodiesel by itself won’t stop global warming, even a 5 percent blend of biodiesel used nationwide would lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.