"Diesel smoke makes me horny."
As the resident tree hugger in a blue-collar excavating family, I cringe every time I read that bumpersticker on the back of my brother's 1989 Dodge diesel. Even though I understand all the reasons for needing diesel -- power, primarily, for hauling the big loads -- when I see a truck belching black smoke, I don't get turned on; I think of carcinogens and cancer.
Biodiesel could bridge the gap.
"We serve up the rednecks and we serve up the tree huggers -- and we respect them both," says Jeff Probst, president and CEO of Blue Sun Biodiesel. "We've got the best environmental and the best performance fuel, bar none."
The fledgling Fort Collins company is the state's first to bring the alternative fuel direct to the pump rather than distribute it solely to large fleets, as other biodiesel companies do. Instead, Probst and his ten employees have been going to independent gas stations to tout the benefits of their B-20, which is a combination of 20 percent vegetable oil and 80 percent traditional diesel. Among other things, biodiesel reduces carbon monoxide emissions by roughly 13 percent and particulates by 18 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. So far, Blue Sun has convinced 25 stations to give it a try.
"We did it for a number of reasons," says Becky Hohnstein of Shoco Oil, one of two stations in the Denver area featuring Blue Sun's product. "The biggest being alternative fuel source for our customers. A lot of our customers are farmers, and it was another way for us to give back to them. They have a crop that they can grow in their fallow season that can be turned into biodiesel, and then we buy that and it helps them. Plus, it helps the U.S. economy. We're filling that tank about every week, or about 4,000 gallons per two weeks."
Those 4,000 gallons are the result of a long process. First, Blue Sun has to find the raw product, traditionally the soybean, which is then crushed and the oil sent to a transfer plant, where it's mixed with regular diesel in varying percentages. The fuel is then delivered to gas stations, where it can be pumped into the tanks of diesel vehicles without any modifications. That ease of use is one of the reasons biodiesel is the fastest-growing alternative fuel in the country: The U.S. Department of Energy projects 250 million gallons will be produced in 2006, up from 8 million gallons in 2001. Blue Sun is seeing 70 percent growth month over month, and is on track to sell 15 million gallons of biodiesel this year.
But in biodiesel, as in all things, garbage in equals garbage out, so Blue Sun is developing rapeseed -- better known as canola -- because the seeds have a much higher oil content, are drought-tolerant and provide a good cover crop for farmers in their down seasons. After three failed starts, the company is also looking for a place to build a $4.5 million biodiesel refinery where it can mix its own product.
"We don't use waste grease because we don't think it makes a good fuel," says Probst, a former Duracell executive. "We need to build a better seed crop. If you have variables in your feedstock -- like the different types of greases at a Chinese restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, an American restaurant -- all of those variables fall out and become variables in your fuel. When you start with a very virgin vegetable oil and a very high-quality vegetable oil, you get the high-end-quality fuel."
Cummins Rocky Mountain can attest to that: The Denver-based manufacturer of diesel engines has the world's fastest diesel dragster, and it runs on Blue Sun B-100. "We've set the record several times on 100 percent fuel from Blue Sun," says Cummins' Scott Bentz. "The power output was better with biodiesel than regular diesel. Even at B-20, there is no horsepower loss. If anything, at this altitude, there is a lot better throttle response, less smoke, and the thing I like the best is you don't get that horrible smell. Diesel smells like you're stir-frying Chinese food on an engine."
Bentz was more than a bit skeptical when Probst approached him three years ago with a proposition: He'd give Bentz any fuel he wanted to try in any vehicle. But Bentz agreed, and went for the dragster. Since then, he's run nothing but biodiesel -- even in his personal vehicles. "It made a night-and-day difference from the minute we poured the stuff in," Bentz says. "It was like, 'Okay, I'm sold.' And we're starting to see a national trend going that way. The biggest question is whether we have enough capacity to grow enough fuel to replace the petroleum base."
Blue Sun is working with farmers across the country to grow that capacity, as well as to ensure the quality of the feedstock. Right now, Probst has approximately eighty farmers in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, New Mexico, Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado signed on. The company's cooperative, sells an equity share to the farmer for $1,250, which is equivalent to forty acres of production. Blue Sun pays the farmers for their crop; the company also has a profit-sharing plan that pays growers for every acre of equity purchased.
Cars may go fast with his fuel, but Blue Sun started off slow when Probst incorporated the company four years ago. He not only had to go from gas station to gas station to sell his vision, but from farmer to farmer. "It's been wonderful to have my wife, to have somebody there who says, 'We can do this, and it doesn't matter if we are poor.' That's a new thing for me," Probst says of his second wife, who was his high school and college sweetheart. "But if my kids can't grow up in a country club, at least they'll know their dad was doing something. If I pass out tomorrow, they'll say, 'My dad was trying to make the world a better place, and that's cool.' And if I make a lot of money from it, that's great, too."
It helps that Probst comes from a family of financial whizzes, and that one of his brothers sits on the Blue Sun board of directors. "We're actually closer now than we have been," he says. "We have something to talk about."
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So does Denver's Department of Public Works. In April 2004, Mayor John Hickenlooper announced an eight-month pilot program to test Blue Sun's fuel in approximately sixty of the department's vehicles, including pickups and tandem dump trucks. That test -- which involved 52,000 gallons of biodiesel -- ended in December, and fleet manager Robert Castaneda will release the official results later this month.
"We did see a slight reduction in emissions," says Castaneda, who has been watching over the fleet since 1996. "In terms of opacity, the Brown Cloud, we saw reductions in opacity readings. We showed that there weren't any additional repairs. Obviously, using biodiesel, we were able to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The results were that fuel economy stayed the same. We were concerned about the gelling of the fuel in the cold, but we didn't find that to happen. There is also some cleaning agency in biodiesel that helped the vehicles. So overall the product worked real well. There is still a challenge with price, but as the cost of fuel goes up, the difference in pricing will reduce."
While everyone from Public Works employees to Cummins to Denver Public Schools is pleased with the efficiency of biodiesel, its price still causes sticker shock at the pump. Regular diesel is selling this week for $2.42 while B-20 goes for $2.60 and B-100 for $3.02. But Probst expects that gap will soon narrow to a five- to ten-cent difference, thanks to a federal subsidy approved in January. A small incentive for biodiesel producers was buried in the Jobs Act, offering up to a penny per gallon for every percent the fuel was cleaned up. With Blue Sun's B-20, that means the company can expect to see twenty cents back on every gallon it sells, savings it can pass on to the consumer.
Maybe I'll slap a "powered by biodiesel" bumpersticker on the back of my brother's truck. Now, that would be sexy.