Biodiesel and Ethanol

A Painless Way to Go Green: Biodiesel

November 2012, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Sean Lyden - Also by this author

There are a number of obstacles that keep fleets from “going green.” Chief among them is “sticker shock.” Many alternative-fuel systems add a substantial, budget-busting up-front cost to a vehicle’s purchase price, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 or higher, per unit to convert vehicles to run on a particular form of clean energy, including compressed natural gas (CNG), propane autogas, hybrid-electric, or all-electric power. These conversions not only take money, but time as well.

While many OEMs and upfitters can handle a conversion relatively quickly, it can add to the time it takes to be delivered to a fleet, delaying the time it takes to get the vehicle into productive, money-saving operation.

Even if a fleet manager and company management are willing to bear this up-front expense, often there isn’t the infrastructure to support the fleet, adding additional expense and time to install a fueling infrastructure for such fuels as CNG and propane autogas.

What if a fleet could transition to cleaner-burning fuel, with little (if any) extra cost? Would that make “greening” the fleet financially feasible?

For proponents of biodiesel the answer is a resounding “yes.” The alternative fuel can operate in most existing diesel engines without expensive conversions.

What is Biodiesel?
Simply put, biodiesel is an alternative, renewable fuel produced in the U.S. from plant oils (such as soybeans), animal fats, algae, or used cooking oil. The term “biodiesel” technically refers to pure fuel known as 100-percent biodiesel or B-100 before blending with conventional diesel fuel.

However, fleets that operate biodiesel don’t usually use pure B-100, but blends from B-5 (5-percent biodiesel-to-diesel ratio) to B-20 (20-percent biodiesel), which is the range many diesel engine manufacturers have approved for use in their engines.

As more engine OEMs have accepted biodiesel, so have more fleets, contributing to an upward growth in production, from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 1.1 billion gallons in 2011, though production dipped from 2008 through 2010 during the height of the recession, before ramping back up to historic levels.

What do fleets that operate biodiesel think about the fuel? What has their experience been? What are their future plans?

Lambert St. Louis International Airport
● Sector: Government.
● Fleet Manager: Mike Bernich.
● Vehicle Types Using Biodiesel:
Includes more than 600 hp aircraft
rescue and firefighting (ARFF)
units, including specialized runway
snow removal equipment.
● Number of Vehicles Using
Biodiesel: 250.
● Biodiesel Blend: B-20.

Between 1987 and 1988, Lambert St. Louis International Airport launched an experimental biodiesel program using 20 test vehicles, with blends ranging from B-5 to B-40. Based on the results, Lambert fleet management determined B-20 was the best blend for optimal performance in the St. Louis climate. The program has since expanded to cover every piece of Lambert’s 250-unit diesel fleet.

Fleet Manager Mike Bernich discussed Lambert’s switch to biodiesel, and some of the unexpected challenges and benefits derived from the alternative fuel.

GRN: Why did you switch to biodiesel?

Bernich: For diesel engines, biodiesel was the logical choice because we did not have to convert any vehicle fuel delivery systems. Biodiesel is readily available, and we did not have to install any specialized pump dispensers.

GRN: What have been the results?

Bernich: To our operators, it was a seamless conversion. We haven’t heard complaints of power loss, and the slight drop in fuel economy is very negligible, offset by increased life of expensive components. Also, the drivers no longer complain about exhaust fumes (from conventional diesel) when starting vehicles in semi-closed buildings. They say it now smells like someone is cooking french fries in their vehicles.

GRN: What challenges have you
experienced?

Bernich: The only challenge we have had was older equipment that was first run on [conventional] diesel. When biodiesel was introduced — due to the soot accumulating in the fuel system from the original fuel — the biodiesel flushed and cleaned the entire fuel system, initially requiring filter changes more frequently than a vehicle that was started on biodiesel. After several scheduled filter changes, we were able to return to manufacturers’ recommended filter change intervals.

For fleets with a higher-mileage or higher-hour unit that they’re considering moving to biodiesel, one of the key things you have to remember is that biodiesel is going to clean the soot out of the system. You’ll want to have extra filters available during initial changeover — depending on how much soot has accumulated in the system.

GRN: What are your future plans regarding biodiesel?

Bernich: As long as it is available and cost effective for us, our plans are to continue using biodiesel. It has reduced our overall maintenance costs due to longer wear life and it assists us in keeping emissions at a lower level than standard diesel. With federal mandates to lower the sulfur content of diesel, the use of biodiesel helps compensate for the loss of lubrication from the lower sulfur content, which we’ve seen helps increase engine life.

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