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Should you be considering biofuel in your boiler?
Deciding whether biofuel is right for your building requires long-term cost-benefit analysis. The pros and cons of alternate fuel biofuel.
You don’t care about the environment? Oh, of course, you do – it’s not like you litter or start forest fires or anything. But you’ve got a building to heat, and only so much budget with which to do it. So, when somebody starts talking about heating oil made from soybeans or the unfortunately named rapeseed, you tend to file it in that part of your mind with the picture-phones and flying cars.
But there’s biofuel in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Yes, it’s being processed in the lands of stoopball and the Yankees, already heating a few single-family homes. Biofuel is currently a little more expensive upfront than conventional No. 2 heating oil. It burns a little cleaner and thus more efficiently, however, so deciding whether it’s right for your co-op or condo requires a more long-term cost-benefit analysis than usual. But as with butter, margarine, and low-cholesterol-no-trans-fatty-acid-yogurt spread, it’s nice to have a choice besides oil and natural gas.
So what’s biofuel? “It’s a fuel that includes a plant product [or any other organic compound] as part of its mix,” explains John Nettleton of Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension research group, based in midtown Manhattan. Biofuel in the U.S. usually means a blend of 20 percent esterized soybean oil and 80 percent heating oil – a mix called B20. Sunflower oil, mustard-seed oil, and lots of other vegetable oils also work. The military is a big user of biodiesel since “you’ve got a mess hall feeding a couple thousand marines twice a day so you have a lot of waste vegetable oil,” says Nettleton. “We did a study of retail food outlets in Brooklyn last summer and found there’s somewhere between 1.6 and 1.8 million gallons a year of waste vegetable oil just in Brooklyn, just in restaurants.” (Renderers for soap, animal feed, and cosmetics currently recycle 90 percent of that, just so you know the restaurants aren’t throwing it down the toilet.)
Soybean appears to be the “greenest” – the most environmentally friendly – plant to use as biofuel, since growing it doesn’t require nitrogen fertilizer, which can add to the greenhouse effect. But that’s more than you probably need to know. What you do need to know is that residential boilers designed to burn No. 2 heating oil can burn B20 biofuel with minimal modification, if any at all. While B20 produces slightly fewer BTUs per volume than No. 2 oil, it also has a slightly higher burn rate, or heat output.
And it burns more cleanly: biofuel in the boiler “exhibits reduced pollution for a number of indicators, including particulates and sulphur dioxide, and it seems that nitrogen oxide [NOx] emission is the same or slightly reduced,” says Nettleton.
Other sources aren’t so sure of that last part – one Department of Energy report cites a two percent NOx increase over conventional fuel. Yet even acknowledging this, Dave Schildwachter of the Bronx fuel company Fred M. Schildwachter & Sons, has been selling B20 to homeowners since the beginning of 2005. “There’s improved efficiency due to things staying clean. There are fewer BTUs versus standard No. 2 oil, but the efficiencies more than make up for it,” he notes. “The boilers stay cleaner, even the nozzle strainers are cleaner.” And as any super knows, there’s nothing like clean nozzle-strainers.
Biofuel critic Dr. David Pimentel, a Cornell scientist and former chair of a Department of Energy panel that studied corn-based ethanol production (which he deems a disaster), concedes that B20 “does burn a bit cleaner. But that’s only after you’ve produced it – after you have the fuel.” When you add in production, processing, and transportation energy needs, he says, citing a study he and a co-author published in the March 2005 issue of Natural Resources Research, soybean-based biofuel requires 27 percent more energy than it gives in return.
Leaving such macro-factors to policy-makers (who also get mileage, so to speak, over the contention that domestically produced B20 lessens dependence on foreign oil), biofuel is at least a start. With Pimentel and others projecting that petroleum use will peak in 2007 and that the world’s dwindling supply will tighten significantly in 40 to 50 years, governments and corporations here and abroad are seeking alternative fuels. In the New York metropolitan region, the Keyspan energy corporation – hardly a wild ’n’ crazy company – is actively pursuing biofuel to help create electricity, according to a spokesperson. (The multinational British conglomerate BP, on the other hand, is looking for alternatives but opposes biofuel efforts in favor of increased research into solar, wind, hydrogen, and natural gas for power generation.) And on a smaller scale, singer Willie Nelson is selling his BioWillie brand automotive biodiesel (“Hit the road again with a clean-burning, renewable fuel that is grown right here in America!”)
Green-and-clean is nice, but is this pie-in-the-sky? Fuel-supplier Schildwachter isn’t a disinterested party, yet as a biofuel booster he’s greasing the wheels quite literally: his company uses a two percent soybean/petroleum mix called B2 as a lubricant. He adds: “We’ve been running our own trucks on B20 biodiesel for years, and it’s been great.”
Schildwachter & Sons, which has a four-and-a-half-million-gallon fuel terminal, has been in the process of building “bio-racks,” metal structures where the B20 mixture can be made and pumped into his delivery trucks. Over in Brooklyn, Bob Lindenbaum, of the two-year-old Environmental Alternatives, says his company doesn’t make B20 but produces “pure biodiesel fuel – B100. We take soybean oil, make a [chemical] reaction, and produce biofuel. We wholesale it to terminals that sell No. 2 heating oil or diesel fuel, and they blend it.”
No co-op or condo in the region appears to be using biofuel at the moment, though one- and two-family homes both in New York City and in such upstate towns as Newburgh have been using it with reported success. Cornell’s Cooperative Extension, together with New York City Technical College and Brookhaven National Laboratory, began a pilot project last fall that is currently testing B20 biofuel heat in a handful of multifamily city apartment buildings, and is looking to expand. Aside from cost of the fuel itself, participation is free.
“We provide onsite visits from skilled engineers, and people from New York City Tech work with the super to keep logs,” says Cornell’s Nettleton. “Building owners and managers can e-mail me at email@example.com to get more information on participating.”
So … soy? Should you think about using biofuel in your boiler? On a budgetary basis, it depends a lot right now on the efficiency of your current system. On a philosophical basis, it might be worth it as an environmental quality-of-life issue. All we know is the new old motto: the gas is always greener on the biofuel side of the fence.
WHO YOU GOING TO CALL?
New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
17 Columbia Circle
Albany, N.Y. 12203-6399
The Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College
University Avenue at West 181 Street
Bronx, N.Y. 10453
Cornell Cooperative Extension/ New York City
16 East 34th Street 8th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10016
The National Bodies Board
3337a Emerald Lane
P.O. Box 104898
Jefferson City, MO 65110-4898
BIOFUEL: PROS AND CONS
(Note: Environmental effects below refer to end-use, and do not include effects
associated with fuel production and transportation.)
• Can be used wherever diesel fuel is utilized: vehicles, electricity generators, marine vessels, and oil-fired heating systems.
• The soybean-oil portion is biodegradable, nontoxic, odorless, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics.
• Reduces problems associated with cold weather, stability, material compatibility, and storage-tank cleanliness.
• Provides increased lubricity.
• Can reduce carbon dioxide “greenhouse” emissions that may contribute to global warming, as well as other harmful emissions including sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.
• Cleaner-burning properties enable cleaner heat exchangers in boilers and warm-air furnaces, theoretically reducing cost of annual cleaning and tune-up.
• Costs as much as 20 cents a gallon more than diesel fuel.
• Two percent increases in nitrogen oxide emissions.
• Limited emission benefits compared to new, low emission engines or after-market add-ons such as PM traps.
• Cold-flow management costs.
•Lack of American Society for Testing and Materials standards.
• Biofuel produced from feedstocks with high levels of saturated fatty acids (tallow, lard, some yellow grease) has a risk of freezing in tanks and forming crystals that plug fuel filters.
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE); University of Idaho; New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
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