Biodiesel is just one facet of the alternate fuel/energy issue. Public and government interest in organic, renewable, pollution-reducing fuel (umbrella term: "environmentally friendly") is high. This spring, Boise had a May in Motion event promoting alternative transportation, which resulted in an estimated 200,000 vehicle miles being curtailed that month. In the first week of August, the Discovery Center of Idaho hosted Boise's first Alternative Energy Festival, which featured a VW Bug powered by mustardseed oil, hands-on displays and activities and guest speakers from Boise State, University of Idaho, INEEL and the U.S. Department of Energy, among others. Early September will see a Biodiesel Utilization Workshop at the Boise Centre on the Grove, for Department of Transportation employees. On many levels, reducing car usage and/or pollution therefrom seems to be a priority around Boise and beyond.
You might ask, "What is biodiesel and why should I care?" Typically, if municipal leaders are talking about something, it's a good idea to get in the know and see what our duly elected officials are up to. Public and governmental interest in alternate fuels has the potential to greatly affect the future of the automobile and, accordingly, how we get around.
Biodiesel is a biodegradable, organically produced fuel derived from such renewable resources as vegetable oils like canola/rapeseed or soybean, cooking oil like that recycled from restaurants and animal fat. In the United States, biodiesel derived from soybean oil is the most common. In Idaho, biodiesel proponents--such as the DOE, DOT and local agencies--are not really focused on biodiesel and the general public, but rather, government agencies and businesses running diesel fleets, such as trucks, school buses, and so on (perhaps to effect change from the top, perhaps because most private cars don't run on diesel fuel).
Biodiesel is for use in vehicles that normally take diesel fuel. Diesel engines can be modified to take 100 percent pure biodiesel, but blends are more common, particularly a 20 percent biodiesel/diesel blend (called B20). B20 is usable without the need for engine modification. Those pushing for biodiesel are promoting B20 because B20 is the most likely biodiesel to initially catch on--users can pump B20 into a diesel engine and go. Since there is no adjusting or replacing the car, the commitment required from B20 users is relatively low.
Biodiesel proponents praise the fuel for the potentiality of reducing air pollution, and thus a reduction in air toxins such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, as well and the soot and odor of diesel exhaust. Pure biodiesel naturally has a higher pollution-reducing potential than B20. Hopes for biodiesel, however, are not confined to its possible contribution to environmental affairs. Another interest in biodiesel is economically motivated; in light of current political realities, there are those who would have us wean ourselves from dependence on petroleum. Biodiesel, unlike petroleum, can be produced from common, renewable sources and even sources that would normally be viewed as waste product. Since sustained mass parkings are at best a remote likelihood and the shift to alternate forms of vehicles (such as hybrid cars) gradual in coming, alternate fuels are often viewed as the next most likely step.
So if biodiesel is biodegradable, renewable, pollution reducing and in the case of B20, appears to require no adjustment for operation in existing diesel engines, why isn't it more common? As with many ideas, biodiesel has some stumbling blocks.
First, back to economics: biodiesel is simply more expensive than petroleum diesel--on average, about twenty cents per gallon. (This issue may resolve itself if gas prices continue to rise.) Also a hit to the wallet is the fact that biodiesel reduces an engine's fuel efficiency by about ten percent. Thus, right now, using biodiesel costs more per gallon and yields fewer miles to the gallon. This economic impact, in part, seems to be a hindrance to biodiesel's catching on. Biodiesel's relatively poor oxidation stability and capacity for microbial growth makes long-term storage difficult as well.
Availability is also an issue. Currently, biodiesel is only available in three Idaho locations as well as one location over the Oregon border in Vale. Only one of Idaho's locations is in Boise. This scarcity is not unique to Idaho--biodiesel is still relatively rare around the country.
Even so, the current and pressing appeal of biodiesel is that it's a baby step in a direction many people think our society needs to go.
Biodiesel and other forms of alternate fuel are just one part of Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's plan--nestled among developing and promoting mass transit, bicycle riding, pedestrian-ism and carpooling--to clean up the Valley's air. Bieter explains, "I don't ever want to get to the point that any amount of smog is okay with us." Working to qualify Boise for the United States Department of Energy's (USDE) "Clean Cities Program,"--which would qualify Boise for certain grants and economic incentives to keep pollution down--Bieter hopes Boise can be a model for the rest of the state and beyond. If Boise can achieve "Clean City" status, Bieter says, perhaps neighboring cities will be similarly inspired.
Bieter wants his administration to set an example for the changes they want to effect. To that end, the city has twenty-two cars in its fleet that run on alternate fuels, as well as a number of hybrid cars. Public Works has purchased bicycles for use by its employees, and Bieter himself rides a bike to work, on average, he says, three times per week.
According to the mayor, the alternate fuel issue will be propelled by several considerations on the part of businesses, the public and government--including concern for rising fuel prices, a reluctance to rely on one fuel source, as well as environmental awareness.
"The car is powerful and isn't going anywhere in the short term," says Bieter, but he hopes to "make a dent in it."