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Biofuel Basics

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, you tend to file it in that part of your brain with the picture-phones and flying cars. But there's biofuel in Brooklyn and biofuel in Da Bronx, with at least five oil distributors now offering this greener alternative to petroleum.

So what exactly is 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. In the U.S., that 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," Nettleton says.

Biofuel is a little more expensive upfront than conventional No. 2 heating oil, but it burns a little cleaner and thus more efficiently. 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 [British Thermal Units, a standard measure of heat] per volume than No. 2 oil, it also has a slightly higher burn rate, or heat output. And it burns cleanly, exhibiting reduced pollution from particulates like sulphur dioxide," says Nettleton, "and it seems that nitrogen oxide [NOx] emission is the same or slightly reduced."

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 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." Yep, and 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.

Yet with even Pimentel, among others, projecting that the world's dwindling petroleum 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, Keyspan, for one, is actively pursuing biofuel to help create electricity, says a spokesperson, and on a smaller scale, singer Willie Nelson has 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." Over in Brooklyn, Bob Lindenbaum of 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."

Newer biofuel bandwagoneers include Metro Fuel Oil in Brooklyn, which has been selling trucked-in product, but now has the city's first biofuel refinery, a Greenpoint facility set to produce 110 million gallons a year, more than 40 percent of that produced by the entire country in 2006; Stuyvesant Fuel in The Bronx; and Manhattan's Tri-State Biodiesel, which is gearing up its own refinery in Red Hook and plans to be distributing in the spring. (If you run across UMR Energy Systems on trade-group lists, forget it; that Staten Island company no longer exists.)

"It's part of the feeling of being a green company," Stuyvesant Vice President Lou Romano says of biofuel's appeal for heating-oil firms. "Anything to help the environment – it's our obligation."

So … soy? Should you think about using biofuel in your boiler? On a budgetary basis, it depends 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.

Adapted from Habitat March 2006 and October 2007. For the complete articles and more,  join our Archive >>

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