Biodiesel Revolution Gathering Momentum

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Over the past 15 years, The Recycling Alternative has sharply reduced the amount of paper products going into landfills. Recently, company owners Robert Weatherbe and Louise Schwarz took a bold step to curtail their own production of air pollution.

This summer, The Recycling Alternative became the first Vancouver business to operate a fleet of trucks with biodiesel, a nontoxic, renewable fuel created from vegetable or fish oils, recycled cooking grease, or animal fats. Compared with regular diesel, biodiesel results in dramatically lower levels of pollutants coming out of the tailpipe.

"As a recycling company, it's necessary that we take a lead in pursuing a better system, if we can, that's less harmful to the environment," Weatherbe told the Georgia Straight.

He said that his four dieselpowered trucks use a 20-percent blend of biodiesel. Salt Spring Coffee Co. driver Ross McLeod told the Straight that he also pumps a biodiesel blend into his truck. Both firms belong to the recently formed Vancouver Biodiesel Cooperative, a local nonprofit with approximately 30 members, according to cofounder Robb Miller.

Biodiesel users and vendors sometimes refer to their blends as B20, B40, or B100, depending on the percentage of renewable fuel in their tanks. Miller, a 33-year-old nonpractising lawyer, told the Straight that his 1983 Toyota Land Cruiser runs on B100, the purest form of biodiesel. According to a recent report by the Victoria-based Wise Energy Co-op, B100 results in zero sulphur emissions, a 47-percent reduction in particulate matter, and a 67-percent drop in unburned hydrocarbons. The only drawback is slightly higher emissions of nitrogen oxide.

"It's an existing renewable fuel that can be implemented without any changes to infrastructure or engine modifications," Miller said. "It's literally pour and go."

Miller, the son of an Agriculture Canada biochemist, recalled being fascinated with alternative energy since childhood. He said that he got interested in biodiesel after realizing it could be introduced without delay. All that's necessary is a feedstock, a catalyst such as sodium hydroxide, and an alcohol. Biodiesel enthusiasts often mention that the inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, originally intended it to run on vegetable oil.

At The Recycling Alternative's premises at 360 Industrial Avenue, the Vancouver Biodiesel Cooperative keeps a tank of the renewable fuel for anyone who wants a fill-up in their diesel-powered vehicle; it costs $1.45 per litre. "We have some early adopters who are taking advantage of it," Miller said, "but they're eating the cost."

Miller's company, EcoFuels Canada Inc. (www.ecofuels.ca/), created the cooperative to supply biodiesel to individuals and small businesses at competitive rates. In Europe, there are already thousands of service stations offering biodiesel. According to the Wise Energy Co-op report, Germany alone is expected to produce more than 1.1 billion litres in 2004.

"The size of the potential market, in conjunction with very high fuel prices, has provided European countries with a strong impetus to select alternative fuel technologies," the report stated.

The Wise Energy Co-op study--which was funded by VanCity Credit Union and the federal and provincial governments--also noted that 15 American states have passed pro-biodiesel legislation. On July 1, the B.C. government eliminated the 21-cent-per-litre provincial fuel tax on biodiesel in blends ranging from five to 50 percent.

Ian Thomson, president and chief operating officer of Canadian Biofuels Technology Corporation, told the Straight that the B.C. government has "the most transparent, well-thought-out alternative-fuels exemption framework" of any province. Thomson said that his company plans to build a biodiesel production plant in the Lower Mainland within the next 12 to 18 months. He predicted it will cost $7 to $13 million and produce between 15 million to 25 million litres per year.

Thomson added that based on experience in the U.S., diesel engine manufacturers have become comfortable with lower-level blends. "We're looking at primarily a B5 or B20 market," he said.

In Washington state, the biodiesel business is already blossoming. Dan Freeman, owner of Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuelwerks in Ballard, told the Straight that he sells between 11,000 to 13,000 gallons of B100 per month. "We get an average of one new customer a day," he said.

Freeman added that there are plans to build three biodiesel plants in his state, including one in Ferndale near the Canadian border. "That would be a tremendous boon for our farmers, create jobs, and drastically improve our air quality," he said.

Most industrial producers create biodiesel from vegetable oils or used cooking grease. Thomson said that Canadian Biofuels, on the other hand, plans to use "trapped grease", also known as "brown grease", which could be more technologically challenging. This muck, which goes down the drain in restaurants, sometimes clogs up sewer systems and creates difficulties at sewage-treatment plants, according to the Wise Energy Co-op report.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Youth Alliance is collaborating with UBC chemical and biological engineering assistant professor Naoko Ellis to create 100 litres of B20 biodiesel per week from restaurant grease and waste vegetable oil. Ellis told the Straight that there are plans for a massive increase in production.

"The large-scale unit, which has the capacity of 1,000 litres per day, is just about to be commissioned," Ellis said. "We're hooking up the last bits and pieces, and we'll be doing testing this month."

The federal Climate Change Action Plan calls for the production of 500 million litres of biodiesel per year in Canada by 2010. The Wise Energy Co-op report estimated that B.C. food-service establishments produce 21.4 million litres of waste "yellow" grease annually, which would provide enough B20 for 3,180 buses--more than twice the size of TransLink's fleet. The report noted that when all potential feedstock sources were considered, it's theoretically possible to create 125 million litres of B100 per year. This represents 4.5 percent of the total annual diesel usage in B.C.