REVIEW: Biodiesel
Brave new (greasy) world
Assessing the global potential of biodiesel

Reviewed by Laura Sayre

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Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy

Greg Pahl; Chelsea Green, 2005; ISBN 1-931498-65-2; 281 pp; $18.00 (paper)

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April 1, 2005: If you haven't yet given much thought to biodiesel, put Greg Pahl's Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy near the top your reading list. My advice is to start not with the introduction--you're probably already familiar with why and how urgently we need develop alternatives to petroleum energy--but to jump in pretty much anywhere else, and then sample your way around the chapters as the feeling grabs you. Apart from the first few pages, this is an inspiring, startlingly positive tale, and one that could potentially do more to change Americans' energy use habits than any of the "end of the petroleum age" titles currently crowding the booklists.

Perhaps the best index of biodiesel's viability is that its current use exceeds its public recognition. Unlike hydrogen, which is hyped by the White House and in full-page glossy magazine ads from General Motors, biodiesel is a fully practicable, ready-to-go alternative fuel technology that doesn’t require a total overhaul of our energy infrastructure. Unlike ethanol, which has received strong government support for decades, biodiesel actually yields more energy than it takes to create. Biodiesel produces significantly lower carcinogenic tailpipe emissions than petrodiesel, "is more biodegradable than sugar," in Pahl's words, and "less toxic than table salt" (7). It is benign enough to be shipped by UPS, but it can also be readily blended with petrodiesel in any proportion from one percent biodiesel (known as B1) all the way up to 99 percent biodiesel (B99). It can be used in any diesel engine with few or no modifications. Maintenance people for truck and bus fleets that have shifted to biodiesel report improved fuel economy and reduced servicing costs.

For all of these reasons, you may very well have already directly or indirectly consumed energy generated by biodiesel. Although the current biodiesel trend only dates from the mid 1990s (after a scattering of experiments earlier in the century), global biodiesel production now stands at 750 million gallons a year. Most of that is in western Europe—especially Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Spain—but there are strong nascent biodiesel movements in eastern Europe, South Africa, India, Thailand, and Brazil, among other countries. In the United States, biodiesel has been used successfully for several years by the U.S. Postal Service, the National Park Service, and all four branches of the U.S. military, as well as by dozens of municipal and school bus systems. Biodiesel is also currently available at around 300 retail filling stations across the United States and is beginning to be offered by home heating oil companies.

Advances like these mean that biodiesel is bound to shed its low profile before long, and Pahl's handsome, capable book from Chelsea Green will make an excellent part of the new PR package. Pahl has written an accessible, comprehensive introduction to the who, what, where, when and why of biodiesel: "Technically a fatty acid alkyl ester. . . [which] can be easily made through a simple chemical process from virtually any vegetable oil, including (but not limited to) soy, corn, rapeseed (canola), cottonseed, peanut, sunflower, avocado, and mustard seed. . . . [or] from recycled cooking oil or animal fats" (6).

Pahl opens with a brief account of Rudolf Diesel's development of the diesel engine and his hopes that it would serve as a tool of agricultural development by running on vegetable-oil fuels. (The book's epigraph quotes a speech Diesel delivered in 1912, in which he declared that "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels. . . may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum[.]") Pahl goes to describe, briefly and clearly, the technical aspects of biodiesel production and consumption, including post-Diesel improvements in fuel processing and engine tuning, the relative value of the various feedstocks, and other practical matters such as the development of international biodiesel quality standards and the willingness of engine manufacturers to warranty their engines for use with biodiesel.

Part Two of the book is devoted to a survey of biodiesel developments around the world, while Part Three focuses on activity in the United States—not, Pahl notes, because the U.S. has been a leader in the biodiesel industry (it hasn't), but because "it plays such a key role in the energy dilemma currently facing the planet, [so that] anything the United States does to try to clean up its act will have a significant impact on the rest of world" (149). This is not a manual for brewing your own biodiesel or converting your diesel engine to run on straight vegetable oil—there are other resources for that, which Pahl points to—but it will give you a good solid understanding of the basics of biodiesel and its potential role within a more sustainable energy future.

I should emphasize that Pahl is no wide-eyed, naïve enthusiast. He does justice to the frictions within the biodiesel community, notably between the decentralized, grassroots emphasis on running used-fryer-oil (UFO) in vehicles converted to run on straight-vegetable-oil (SVO) and the more ameliorist, mainstream strategy to shift as much diesel usage as possible to a B5 or B20 blend. He duly notes that although much of the early support for biodiesel in this country came from the American Soybean Association, which implemented a soybean checkoff program in 1991 and directed some of the funds toward biodiesel research and legislative efforts, soybeans yield less oil per acre than peanut, safflower, canola, and sunflower (not to mention palm oil, coconut, and jatropha, an inedible tropical shrub). Finally, he stresses that even the most optimistic alternative energy analysts argue that we can probably only replace about 25 percent of our collective diesel usage with biodiesel.

It's interesting to reflect on the parallels between the growth of biodiesel over the past decade or so and the growth of organic farming. Although the overall numbers are still small relative to the conventional/petroleum sector, the current rate of expansion is in the double digits, and major players are starting to sit up and take notice. Both Cargill and ADM have invested in biodiesel processing plants in Europe. As with organics, legislative and regulatory encouragements for biodiesel use are beginning to take effect--Minnesota, for instance, has passed a law requiring that all diesel sold in the state after June 30, 2005, contain 2 percent biodiesel. And of course the rising cost of petrodiesel—like the rising awareness of the external costs of conventional foods—provides the best incentive of all. One hopes these parallels can be strengthened into a common platform for sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy. Who knows? perhaps biodiesel can serve as an end use for the otherwise unmarketable GMO-contaminated corn, soy, and canola crops of the future.

A final word of caution: I guarantee this book will start you thinking about trading in whatever it is you currently drive, getting your hands on an inexpensive, second-hand diesel-engined vehicle and asking your local greasy spoon what they do with their used fryer oil or harassing your nearest filling station about carrying biodiesel. Last time I checked, Chelsea Green was giving away free "Boycott Iraq: Grow Your Own Oil" bumper stickers. Have fun.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.