If you’re like most New York City homeowners, the recent combination
of early winter snow and record high fuel prices already has you
griping as you await the first monster Keyspan
bill of the season.
If you’re a researcher or entrepreneur specializing in
environmentally-friendlier alternative fuels, on the other hand, it has been a time
“People are jazzed,” says John Nettleton, and by people, he means people like his colleagues at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, a Cornell University research
group. “They see it as a real opportunity.”
Nettleton’s group has two projects under way within the city involving “bio-fuel,” specifically bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is a mixture of refined vegetable oil and ordinary petroleum diesel. By promoting the use of such fuels, environmentalists hope to reduce petroleum emissions while at the same time providing an additional market for local farmers and recyclers.
From Restaurants To Your Boiler
year, Nettleton’s group conducted a survey of New York restaurants
and put the total amount of waste vegetable oil available to
recyclers more than a million gallons in Brooklyn alone. (Almost
90 percent of that total is currently recycled, Nettleton says, but
most of that recycled product goes toward the production of
cosmetics, soaps and other organic derivatives. ) Part of the beauty of bio-diesel is that the “bio” part can include a wide range of oils, everything from used sesame oil to animal fat and grease.
“There’s a huge potential
supply of restaurants and food service establishments in New York
City, I think 26,000 restaurants by the last count,” says James Quigley, director of the Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College.
Percentages vary, but the most common bio-diesel blend, 20 percent
vegetable oil, 80 percent petroleum -- often referred to as B20 -- is
already price-competitive when compared to regular diesel and
gasoline. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report on
alternative fuel prices, the average Sept. 2005 price of B20 was
$2.91 compared to $2.81 for ordinary diesel and $2.74 for regular gasoline.
The cost will become even more competitive because of a recent federal tax credit giving heating oil producers a dollar back for every gallon of virgin soybean oil they use to
Not only is bio-diesel cleaner-burning than
heating oil but it also delivers better efficiency, thus reducing
stress on aging boilers. Add in the fact that a recent executive mandate from Governor George
Pataki earmarks a five percent minimum of the state’s fuel
consumption portfolio for bio-diesel and you have all the
requirements for a fast-growing marketplace.
A Growing Marketplace
How fast is the market growing for bio-diesel? Environmental Fuel Alternatives, a Brooklyn startup with production facilities In Newark, claims to have sold two
million gallons of bio-diesel in less than two years’ time.
“If I could get the production up and everything I wanted, it would be
double,” says Bob Lindenbaum, the company’s chief operating officer.
Other heating fuel suppliers are following suit.
Mark Schildwachter, an executive at the Bronx heating oil wholesaler
Fred M. Schildwachter & Sons, Inc., says his company is currently in
the process of switching over its equipment to accommodate B20. The
company already offers bio-diesel to customers who wish to order it
but expects to ramp up production to all its customer within
the coming year.
James Quigley of the Center for Sustainable Energy personally drives a
20 year-old Volkswagen that can switch over to bio-diesel as a fuel
source once the engine has been properly warmed up. Quigley permitted bio-
diesel vehicles to be shown off alongside hybrid and fuel cell models
in the Center’s “Clean Car Fair” held on Earth Day earlier this year.
A Compromise Solution, Not A Perfect One
As noted in many environmental journals, bio-diesel is, at heart, an
imperfect energy solution. Even if you raise the blend ratio to 100
percent refined vegetable oil, you still face the continued problem
of turning long-chain carbon molecules into airborne carbon gases
such as carbon monoxide, a poison, and carbon dioxide, a heat-
trapping chemical considered by many scientists to be a root cause of
rising global temperatures.
According to a 1998 U.S. Department of Energy study, mixing vegetable
oil with diesel reduces sulfur emissions but actually raises nitrogen
oxide emissions, a key contributor to urban smog. Maybe that’s why
those looking to clean up local skies and reduce U.S. dependence on
fossil fuel see bio-diesel and other carbon-based biofuels as the
economic equivalent of methadone maintenance -- i.e. a compromise
solution for a society too addicted to quit petroleum cold turkey.
“You could say bio-diesel is a transitional fuel like natural gas,” says Quigley of the Center for Sustainable Energy.
“It gives us a sustainable resource, and it
allows us to put people to work in sustainable jobs while at the same
time reducing the export of dollars in exchange for exhaustible
fossil fuels that pollute our atmosphere and contribute to global
Quigley’s program owes its existence to a $2 million Department of Energy
appropriation secured by local Congressman JosĂ© Serrano in
2003 to help combat historic air quality problems in the Bronx. As
director of the program, Quigley would love to see a bigger local
emphasis on technologies that get rid of the emissions issue
altogether, technologies such as fuel cells, photovoltaic systems and
wind turbines. As a realist, however, Quigley recognizes that
bio-fuels are an important first step -- one that could, in time, tilt
the free market to these other energy alternatives.
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