Switching to biodiesel, part I

Back in February, Braughm gave me the idea to try out biodiesel. Pretty soon thereafter, I decided that I want to switch my primary car over to a renewable fuel. This has taken a little bit of research, which I’d like to share here.

Step 1 was to pick a fuel.

My requirements

Replace my primary car (a 1993 Volvo Wagon) with a car that runs on a renewable fuel. I’d like to be able to get the fuel without going way out of my way. If I’m stuck somewhere without renewable fuel, I’d like to be able to use “normal” gas or diesel as a backup. And while I’m at it, I’d like to get a smaller car that’s a little bit more convenient for around San Francisco. The cost of the fuel is not a huge factor for me (because I don’t drive that much and won’t mind paying extra if it’s better for the planet). The cost of the car is a factor, because I don’t want to invest a lot in a car that might not be the best alternative fuel choice in 2-3 years.

The requirement to be able to use widely available fuel as a backup pretty quickly narrowed my choices to ethanol or biodiesel, which can be run alongside regular gasoline or diesel respectively.

Ethanol

Ethanol looks very promising and is certainly in the news lot. However, I found some drawbacks:

  • It’s hard to find ethanol in the SF Bay Area (according to this fuel station locator there’s one station in Berkeley and it’s for fleet customers only).
  • From what I can tell, it’s hard/expensive to retrofit an older car to run on ethanol, which means you have to buy a new ethanol ready flexfuel car. There several of those available, but I’m not in the market for a brand new car (and most flexfuel cars are large SUVs and trucks which are not ideal for getting around San Francisco).

Maybe in a year or two I’ll be ready for ethanol.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel looks better in my analysis:

  • Biodiesel is available in the Bay Area. Examples are BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley, the San Francisco BioFuels Coop, Golden Gate Petroleum, and more on this list.
  • Biodiesel can run in regular diesel engines (pre-1995 cars might need their fuel lines swapped out). This opens up the possibility of buying a used diesel car and running it on a renewable fuel. And if you’re in a place that doesn’t offer biodiesel, you simply switch back to petrodiesel for a tank (bio and petro can be mixed). As a bonus, diesels get significantly better gas mileage than gasoline cars.

Based on this, I decided to switch to Biodiesel.

Sustainability

I also read up on various articles and papers about how much better ethanol and biodiesel actually are for the environment. Opinions vary. The primary arguments against these new fuels are that they take a lot of land to grow (today in the US ethanol is primarily made from corn and biodiesel from soy beans) and that the fossil fuels used in the fertilization, production and transportation of the new fuels cancel out some or all of their benefit. I decided to make the switch anyway because even if these fuels are only partially better for the environment today, they will get a lot better in the future if consumers start using them and creating demand for better ways to produce them.

Part II

The next step was to find a used diesel car, which should take a “normal” person about 2 weeks. For a car nut such as myself, it takes a little longer to find just the right thing. More on that in a future post…

Update: Part II is here.

6 comments

  1. Weston

    Good for you. I've been thinking about doing the same. So when are you actually switching? Please keep posting about your epxerience with bio.

  2. Pingback: braughm.com » Archive » Biodiesel here I come
  3. Svend

    I met a friends friend the other day who sells natural gas for vehicles. It is hard to fill up if you are on the road a lot, but what he does is converts your car and then sets up a line in your garage so when you come home you plug in the natural gas (which you should already be using) and it fills up while you are at home or using a bike or something. When you are ready to leave, you simply unplug it and drive. It comes out of your natural gas bill and he was claiming it was the best way to go, but then again he is the salesman for the company so naturally he would say that.

  4. Jeffrey

    So hey Toni, now that these MicroFueler guys are selling $10,000 ethanol refineries you can run in your garage, are you going to buy one?

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