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City could give biodiesel a boost

Portland, Ore., is moving to convert more of its city fleet to biodiesel, the alternative fuel made from vegetable oil that produces less carbon dioxide emissions than diesel fuel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even with its green reputation, Portland has just one service station that carries B99 biodiesel, the alternative fuel made from vegetable oil that produces less ozone-damaging carbon dioxide emissions than diesel fuel.

But Jay Dykeman, the service manager at Jay's Garage in southeast Portland, doesn't think he'll have a monopoly for long.

"I'm a businessman as much as an environmentalist, and I think biodiesel is certainly the way this is going to go," Dykeman said.

And it could be getting there faster because the city's transportation commissioner, Randy Leonard, is leading an effort to convert the city's vehicle fleet to alternative fuels.

"I asked the Water Bureau to bring back the information necessary to file an ordinance to convert the city's fleet to as close to 100 percent biodiesel as possible," Leonard said.

In 2004, the city began using B20, a blend that contains 20 percent biodiesel, in all of its diesel equipment such as mowers, dump trucks and backhoes.

A new city ordinance would convert those vehicles to at least a B50 blend, containing 50 percent biodiesel. Non-diesel vehicles would be replaced, with a goal of eventually converting the entire fleet — with the exception of emergency vehicles — to diesel or gas/electric hybrid vehicles.

"We won't save a whole lot of money, but it does reduce our emissions profile considerably, and it fits in with what the community wants," said Mike Stuhr, chief engineer at the Water Bureau.

The effort is part of a larger vision of Leonard's that would make Jay's Garage one of many stations carrying biodiesel across the city and the state.

"We, the city, should coordinate setting up biodiesel filling stations," Leonard said. "If the private market isn't doing it, we should. And we should encourage citizens to convert to biodiesel. That's the best way to break our dependency on foreign fuels. It helps the environment, and it helps Oregon farmers."

Biodiesel, made from barley, soy and other crops, as well as waste grease from food service or processing industries, is a renewable energy source produced domestically. Carbon dioxide and monoxide emissions are substantially reduced in vehicles that use biodiesel blends, and biodiesel's higher lubricity helps engines run more smoothly.

Biodiesel cost varies widely, but prices can be as much as 30 cents more per gallon than highway diesel. Moreover, the Water Bureau's research led to the discovery of several potential headaches.

Heavy vehicles that run on biodiesel can experience up to a 10 percent power reduction due to the lower Btu fuel. And the fuel has difficulty performing at low temperatures, so some vehicles would not be able to run on biodiesel in the winter.

"Biodiesel isn't the be-all, end-all solution," said Don Holmes, sustainability coordinator for the Water Bureau.

"It can be seen as a temporary solution for vehicles until cleaner technologies are adopted," Holmes said. "But it's a good, viable product from what we've seen in the research."