What was his first step in going biodiesel? Talking to heating-oil companies and having them make presentations. Miller was familiar with Metro in particular because of the company's outreach efforts. "I've spoken at a number of events," says Pullo, "and we've made presentations to various agencies and organizations. Paul had attended one, and that's actually how I got to speak with him."
Once a firm was chosen, Miller's board had to decide what type of biofuel to use. "We have two co-treasurers," Miller says. "When they heard the tax credit we could get, they wanted to go straight right to B20," which contains 20 percent biodiesel and offers 20 cents a gallon in tax credit. But at Metro's suggestion, the board decided to transition more gradually — no two boilers and buildings are exactly alike, and there's no single formula for what will be the most efficient bioblend.
Of Soy and Soot
While biofuel generates fewer BTUs than a comparable amount of petroleum oil, the difference is arguably offset by burning biofuel more cleanly, thereby producing less soot inside the boiler and the "stack," which is the industry term for a chimney or similar outlet. "As the boiler gets impacted with a buildup of soot inside," says Pullo, "the burner has to work harder to generate heat because the boiler metal isn't getting heated as fast. With biofuel there's less sooting."
You can determine your system's heat efficiency by measuring what's called the "stack temperature." If the stack temperature is high, it means heat is escaping up the chimney, says Pullo, "because the boiler has to overwork because of the [soot] impaction." With a cleaner burn and less soot, "you're not impacting your boiler as fast and your stack temperature goes down drastically. In Paul's case, it went down 50 degrees in the first couple of weeks of using biofuel. That's a big improvement."
All this might sound like sales hyperbole except that Miller, who is there in the trenches, agrees with Pullo. "It burns so much cleaner," the board president says of the biofuel his building uses. "You can tell because of the stack temperatures. We have a chart that's now a year old and we can see the progress, which is wonderful to see."
On the Other Hand...
Not everyone's convinced. "Buildings of mine that have done it haven't seen the savings," says Beer. "They may get the tax credits, but they're not getting the cost savings they expected." Then, again, the CPA admits, "Maybe the buildings where it does save money aren't out there saying, 'We're getting the benefits,' and I'm just hearing the negative side."
Still, biofuel isn't a panacea — two studies published in the journal Science in 2008 (see abstracts and links to related articles here) and suggest that biofuel production results in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel, and that replacing rainforests, grasslands, or scrubland with cropland adds to the greenhouse effect. And while biofuel burns cleaner than petroleum oil, a certain amount of carbon emissions occurs from refining and transportation. (Nor is natural gas a silver bullet. While it also burns more cleanly than oil, it still contains carbon emissions and the extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," can contaminate watersheds.)
But other sources purport to show statistically that rainforest deforestation decreased from 1990 to 2005, a period in which biofuel began to be available in mass-market amounts. Still others point to myriad complexities that cloud simplistic claims one way or the other. And most everyone agrees that moving away from petroleum oil has to happen in the long run, its place taken by a variety of alternatives from solar to wind to wave to geothermal to biofuel.
And in terms of thinking globally and acting locally, the biofuel conversion at 308 East 79th Street has been "nothing but a plus," Miller says. "Families are thrilled we've taken the initiative to go to biofuel, to be a trendsetter and a leader."
Illustration by Dave Bamundo
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