Biodiesel Blend Powering More 'Triangle' Vehicles

North Carolina biodiesel use growing, in part, through efforts of Piedmont Biofuels Cooperative.

Published: 31-Jan-2005

When it's time to fuel up Shimar Recycling's five vehicles, Will Marley and his employees try to swing by the Exxon station near the intersection of Duke Street and Roxboro Road.

There, they fill their tanks with B20 biodiesel, a fuel mixture made from petroleum and organic feed sources such as soybeans, cooking oil and animal fats.

"We try to get it as much as we can," said Marley, Shimar's vice president.

Marley rarely visited the Exxon station before it began offering B20 in April. Now, his company's automobiles always fill up there, and it's a target destination for the firm's three trucks when they're nearby.

"When you burn biodiesel ... it's much less smoky, it's better for the engine, it keeps it clean," he said. "It's pretty neat."

Since the Exxon station's switch in April from regular diesel to biodiesel, customers like Shimar Recycling have driven sales of the fuel up 70 percent, said Edward Holmes, president of gas station owner Holmes Oil Co. The station was the second in the area to offer fuel made from biodiesel to individual consumers. On Tuesday, B20 was selling there for $2.05 a gallon.

"We've had a lot of positive customer responses to it," Holmes said. "It's brought new customers to the site that otherwise would not have come there."

Interest in biodiesel around the Triangle has skyrocketed since 2001, according to the Triangle J Council of Governments, which promotes the use of alternative fuel sources.

Government, institutional and individual use of B20 biodiesel in the Triangle has increased from 31,500 gallons in 2001 to at least 1.7 million gallons in 2004, said Tobin Freid, project coordinator at Triangle J. B20 contains 20 percent plant-based biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel.

"It's really impressive, and the number of organizations that have started using it has also grown quite impressively," Freid said, from just a few major users in 2001 to more than 15 in 2004. Among the largest local biodiesel users are Duke University, Durham Public Schools and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Individuals like Trey Clement use biodiesel too. The Durham resident occasionally fills up his Ford F250 truck with B20 at Holmes' station at 4401 Roxboro Road. He had a lot of questions when the station switched to biodiesel eight months ago, then figured he'd trust the authorities.

"I'm sure they've tested it and whatnot to make sure it's as good as diesel fuel," he said.

Customers trek to the station from points as distant as Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Efland, said station manager Jackie Brewington. "I think they're real pleased and satisfied with it," she said.

The Exxon station's B20 prices are subsidized by about 26 cents per gallon through a Triangle J grant that's funded by the N.C. Department of Transportation and the N.C. Department of Administration State Energy Office. Triangle J's grant program also encourages large users to convert to biodiesel.

Holmes Oil's grant runs through the end of July. Holmes said his decision to continue offering B20 after that will depend on the cost of the fuel, which in turn depends on demand for soybeans and used cooking oil.

Freid hopes recent legislation will make the choice easier for Holmes and others like him. A federal bill passed last fall provided for excise tax credits for producers and sellers of alternative fuels, she said. The credit would cut 20 cents from the price of each gallon of B20 that's made from an agricultural product such as soybean oil and 10 cents from each gallon of biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil, she said.

"We're very hopeful that'll bring the price down to where it's very close to diesel," Freid said. In turn, that should attract more gas stations to biodiesel and create more competition in the market, she added.

Marley said he'd probably be willing to pay 5 cents more per gallon to continue using biodiesel in Shimar's Volkswagen Jetta and pickup truck. He might even consider continuing to fill up the recycling company's trucks there when it's convenient.

"I hope he's able to continue carrying it," he said. "I think there are people who believe in it, and I hope that's enough."

Meanwhile, use of B100 biodiesel - which is made solely from soy or used cooking oil - is beginning to grow in the Triangle, as well.

About 5,000 gallons of B100 were used in the Triangle in 2004, replacing as much petroleum-based diesel oil as 25,000 gallons of B20.

"They're small users but it adds up pretty quickly," Freid said.

Piedmont Biofuels Cooperative, south of Pittsboro, takes credit for most of the B100 production.

The co-op helps members manufacture biodiesel for their own use and sells B100 fuel it buys from a Florida producer. The cooperative's members, who number fewer than 100, manufacture hundreds of gallons of biodiesel a week for their own use, said Lyle Estill, spokesman for the organization.

Piedmont Biofuels also has plans to open a commercial biodiesel manufacturing operation, Estill said, but he was hesitant to pin down a date.

There's no question that demand exists for B100 and that it will grow next year, he said.

In 2006, federal regulations will require petroleum diesel producers to start removing most of the sulfur they've used for lubrication in their fuel, and biodiesel is a good substitute, he said.

"Every drop that can be produced will be sucked up by the (sales) channel," Estill said. "Right now, demand far exceeds the supply."

But Piedmont Biofuels rejects diesel blends for the most part. B20 is still 80 percent petroleum-based, Estill said.

While he admitted the cooperative is mainly useful for people who want to make their own fuel, Estill said local interest in biodiesel is growing from all quarters.

"There is a general unease in society today about our energy situation," he said. "When there's ill ease about energy, people like to jump into these renewables."

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