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.