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Is Biodiesel a Good Fit for Peninsula Drivers?

Are you all revved up to ditch petroleum so that you can try driving on a domestic bio-fuel? There are a few challenges to consider before shifting gears, especially here on the Peninsula.

Every time gas prices spike, my friends ask me about the VW Beetle I used to own.

Ruby ran on biodiesel, got great mileage and smelled pleasantly like French fries. Sometimes I miss her. But she’s in better hands these days with an East Bay do-it-yourselfer.

So what do you if you're all revved up to ditch petroleum so that you can try driving on a domestic bio-fuel? There are a few challenges to consider before shifting gears, especially here on the Peninsula.

Step 1: A Vehicle with a Diesel Engine

Diesels have been on the road (and the railroad tracks, the ocean and construction sites) for decades. But they aren't very popular in America as family-sized cars. We still think of them as loud and smelly, not realizing how quiet and clean they've become.

In Europe, where fuel costs nearly twice our pump rates, diesels are common because they're valued for their higher fuel efficiency. Locally, dealers carrying diesels include Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen for sedans and SUVs, and Chevy, Dodge, Ford and GMC for pickup trucks.

Most California dealers won't sell older diesels. For those, you must search local ads. 

Step 2: Find a Reliable, Convenient Fuel Source

Commercial biodiesel producers take vegetable oil and remove the glycerin using chemicals and heat. Some California producers, like Yokayo (in Ukiah), start with used cooking oil collected from restaurants (serious recycling!)

Some vehicles will run on this high-quality fuel in pure form. But most biodiesel on the market is a blend. For instance, B20 (20 percent biodiesel to 80 percent petroleum) is popular with long-distance truckers, who find it gentler on their big rigs' engines than standard petroleum diesel.

On the Peninsula, sadly, we no longer have stations that sell B99, or even B20, to the public. For these blends, a trip to San Francisco or the East Bay is required. One station locally, Propel in Redwood City, does sell B5 (at the pump next to E85, an ethanol blend for flex-fuel vehicles).

An Option: Make Your Own BioDiesel

If you have the space, equipment and DIY spirit to make biodiesel at home, you can do it. However, it does involve handling chemicals, cooking oil and their waste by-products safely and responsibly. And not all diesel vehicles, especially the new high-performance models with finely-calibrated injection systems, will run well on home-brew fuel.

If the idea appeals, I highly recommend taking a BioDiesel 101 class before investing in any equipment or a new or used car. Spending a weekend or two helping an up-and-running home brewer can also be very instructive as follow-up. Once I understood everything involved, I personally found buying biodiesel at the pump preferable.

Is Biodiesel Your Green Highway?

If you need to drive but yearn to go petroleum-free, recycle a domestic feedstock and support local producers. Biodiesel is worth looking into. As with most transportation issues, there are many shades of green available. One of them may be just your speed.

A mild-mannered civil servant by day, Mary Bell Austin uses her time away from her environmental work for, well, environmental play. Her adventures in healthy eating and her explorations into the wider green world can be found at Bite-size Green. Her column appears biweekly on Saturdays. 

Patrick O' March 05, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Personally, I would not use Bio in a newer vehicle that is still under factory warranty.. Read your newer (under warranty) vehicle warranty card FIRST! If your dealer samples your tank (pretty routine now) and finds more than their suggested ratio of bio/diesel (sometimes as low as 5%-10% where most common commercially available is B-20%), you could have parts of your vehicle warranty voided permanently. Buyer beware....
Mary Bell Austin March 06, 2012 at 05:50 AM
Good point! I bought my VW used, right after the warranty had run (funny how often people sell then). If I had a brand-new diesel, I'd be careful with the % bio for a while. B5 is the local blend; and B20's not likely to do any harm. But to run on the really high blends or pure bio, I'd lean conservative and use an older, more forgiving diesel.
Mary Bell Austin March 06, 2012 at 05:54 AM
On the flip side, if you've been running on petrodiesel for years, adding bio will start cleaning out your fuel lines. Many older car owners have to change the filter a bit more often at first, until their fuel system is clean (and running better than before, typically). Regardless of the vehicle type, it's good to do some research online to gain the benefit of others' experience before experimenting yourself.

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