WASHINGTON – Three years ago local environmentalists and farmers pressured James Warren to offer biodiesel at his Berlin gas station. Now he is only a few months away from launching Maryland’s first biodiesel production facility.
Warren, 48, owner of Cropper Oil & Gas, has been selling a soybean oil-based version of the fuel for more than two years and currently has the lowest price in the state, $2.99 a gallon. He says profits from his biodiesel are very small, and promoting an alternative energy source is his primary interest for selling it.
“I just think something’s got to be done,” Warren said. “There’s only so much oil in the world.”
Biodiesel is an alternative to regular petroleum-based diesel fuel. It is a renewable energy source that can be made domestically from plant or animal fats and oils. It runs in standard diesel engines and can be mixed with regular diesel in any proportion. All of the biodiesel sold in Maryland is imported from other states.
Compared to petroleum diesel, using biodiesel reduces the emission of unburned hydrocarbons by 67 percent, carbon monoxide by 48 percent and particulate matter by 47 percent. Biodiesel increases smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by 10 percent, according to reports by the National Biodiesel Board.
Soybean oil-based biodiesel starts to crystallize at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is often mixed with petroleum diesel or other additives to prevent gelling. Pure biodiesel is called B100, meaning 100 percent biodiesel. Other common mixtures are B2, B5 and B20, which are two, five and 20 percent biodiesel, respectively.
The production of biodiesel in America has surged in the last year, tripling in 2005 to an estimated 75 million gallons, the Biodiesel Board estimates. Warren said high prices, 50 cents more per gallon at his station, are the only thing that prevents biodiesel from becoming the diesel standard.
“Hopefully we can cut the cost by making it ourselves,” he said. “My goal is to be able to sell B20 for the same price as regular diesel.”
Warren plans to start production at 500,000 gallons the first year. The facility he is building will be capable of producing 3 million gallons annually.
Maryland biodiesel users have been encouraged by a rebate program through the Maryland Soybean Board. Participants can be reimbursed for half the cost of the biodiesel they buy, capped at $500 for the 2006 fiscal year.
Gareth Buckland is an environmental scientist from Frederick. This fiscal year, he has gotten $170 back from the rebate program. He commutes 126 miles each day to Chambersburg, Pa., in his 2001 Volkswagen Beetle, which he says gets 45 miles per gallon on biodiesel.
“I’m doing something for the environment, something I believe in,” Buckland said. “I don’t agree with people dying in Iraq for oil when we can make it here.”
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States imported more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and petroleum products in 2005. Petroleum powers more than 99 percent of cars and trucks in the country.
Ian Carroll, of Chevy Chase, has also taken advantage of the rebate. He is a member of a co-op that buys biodiesel in large quantities. He bought his 1985 Mercedes 300TD just so he could use the fuel.
The price he pays varies from around $3.20 to $4 a gallon, and even without the rebate he would still buy biodiesel. In addition to the environmental benefits, Carroll said using biodiesel serves an important domestic purpose.
“We’ve seen a lot of farmers hurt by international trade,” Carroll said. “This is something farmers can make money off of and preserve their way of life.”
The need for vast infrastructure development plagues biodiesel, said Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America.
“There’s enormous demand but not enough production right now,” Gilligan said. “Facilities need to be built and current ones need to expand.”
Gilligan estimated it will take at least 10 years for biodiesel to make a real dent in the petroleum stronghold.
In addition to cost and infrastructure, another hurdle for biodiesel is the number of diesel vehicles sold in the United States. Diesel trucks and vans are plentiful, but few cars are sold in the United States. Volkswagen offers the greatest number of models for 2006, with diesel versions of the Jetta, Golf and Beetle. Other diesel car models are the Mercedes E320 CDI and the Jeep Liberty CRD. In all, diesel vehicles represent 3 percent of new automobile sales in the United States, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
The other major automakers continue to invest heavily in hybrid technology, but for the 2007 model year, none have announced plans to enter the diesel car market. Despite the small diesel sales in the United States, James Warren is optimistic.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more diesel vehicles being sold.”
– 30 – CNS-2-10-06