Growing Pains for Biodiesel

A few years ago, biodiesel and bioheat were poorly understood and often ridiculed by the average fuel marketer. However, with the increasing cost of petroleum and the demand for cleaner fuels on the rise, it’s no surprise that serious consideration is being paid to a fuel that is not only cleaner, but requires no equipment modifications and has the added benefits of being domestic and renewable.

With more interest coming from fleets, government, industry and the public, many fuel dealers are getting involved with biodiesel and bioheat, and rightly so. After all, a gallon sold is a gallon sold. With annual production volumes still being measured in the millions of gallons, the biodiesel industry is in its infancy. This can offer some advantages to those companies who are the first in their area to offer biofuel blends, but the downside is that there is also an underdeveloped infrastructure. Although it is expected that future supply and blending will eventually move upstream to terminal operators, currently this is often not the case. Anyone considering entering the biodiesel market at this time should be aware that innovation and ingenuity are necessary if the nearest biodiesel rack isn’t just across town. Buying it There are various ways to purchase biodiesel or bio-blended fuels. If there is a rack close to you that offers biodiesel, it can be just as easy to fill up and make deliveries as it is with conventional fuels. Unfortunately, currently this is not often the case. Few terminals offer biodiesel at this time. An alternative is to purchase B100 (pure biodiesel) from a separate biodiesel distributor, proceed to the petroleum terminal, add the distillate component and deliver to the customer or to storage for later delivery. The third, and currently most common method is to purchase a full load of B100, store it in a heated area and blend it with the appropriate distillate fuel before delivery to the customer. This also leaves some B100 to be sold to the purists, or to those who seek a non-toxic dust suppressant, paint thinner or wood preservative (honest). Blending it Because B100 biodiesel gels at a much higher temperature than distillate fuel, (30 to 50 degrees F) it must be kept in a warm environment. The high cloud point is usually an initial concern for most fuel dealers, but it is important to remember that we have dealt with the poor cold weather characteristics of petroleum diesel for decades. Biodiesel blends must be treated the same way, by blending with a quality winter diesel and a chemical additive package when necessary. Blended biodiesel will assume a cold-flow profile in direct ratio to the fuel components of the resulting blend. For instance, if a B20 blend of biodiesel is made from No. 2 diesel with a cloud point of 5 degrees F and B100 that clouds at 35F, the resulting blend will have a cloud point of 11F. Add a cold-flow additive to this and you’re good to go. It is important that the respective fuels be at a proper temperature prior to blending. In warm weather, or if both fuels are above the cloud point of the biodiesel, blending can be as easy as mixing a cocktail: shake and pour. However, it is not a good idea to add warm biodiesel to cold distillate fuel; doing so could result in an unpleasant experience. An acceptable method of blending in cold weather conditions is to superheat the biodiesel to 110 or 120 degrees and add the distillate to the hot biodiesel gradually. Once biodiesel and distillate fuel are properly blended, they will not separate or stratify. Getting there Eventually, biodiesel and bioheat blends will be available at most terminal racks. For this to become commonplace, it will take strong demand from the market. Thanks to recent federal tax provisions, that’s beginning to happen. Meanwhile, each dealer will need to approach the biodiesel storage and blending issue in a way that makes the most sense to them. It is important that marketers do this in ways that are innovative and creative, utilizing as much existing infrastructure as possible. There are many resources available that can help in this regard. The National Biodiesel Board has an excellent Web site, http://www.biodiesel.org/ , that is full of useful information. The National Renewable Energy Lab has a publication entitled “Biodiesel Handling and Use Guidelines” that is very helpful. It can be viewed and downloaded at http://www.nrel.gov/. In addition, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America Web site at http://www.pmaa.org/ offers “Ask Ben.” “Ben” is the Biodiesel Education Network. Dealers can ask Ben specific questions and get customized responses by e-mail. It may also be prudent to employ the services of a professional consultant who has had experience with biodiesel. The cost of a few hours with a professional could prove to be a good investment in the long run. About the author… Joel Glatz is vice president of Frontier Energy, a wholesale and retail biodiesel distributor headquartered in China, Maine. A 21-year veteran of the oilheat industry, he also offers consulting services relating to biodiesel and bioheat. You can reach him at (207) 445-5274 or e-mail joelg@frontierenergy.org

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