Greening up the gas tank
Biodiesel cooperative forms and explores local production

SideStory: All about biodiesel


Greg Vlaming, president of the board of directors for the newly formed San Juan Basin Biodiesel Cooperative, stands next to his Dodge pickup, which has burned a 20/80 biodiesel-diesel blend since he bought it in February. Vlaming and the group are exploring the possibility of producing biodiesel locally, from growing seed crops to processing the finished product./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

As local use of biodiesel grows, a consortium of biodiesel users and farmers is exploring ways to produce the alternative fuel closer to home.

The idea for the San Juan Basin Biodiesel Cooperative was hatched last summer by Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild. At the time, Berman was working with local ski resorts on using more biodiesel in their fleet vehicles.

“We were looking at opportunities and decided it might be possible to produce it locally,” he said.

Berman explored the idea further, and last February, a board comprised of biodiesel fleet managers, biodiesel users, agricultural interests and renewable energy proponents was formed. The cooperative was possible thanks to funds from the City of Durango, Durango Mountain Resort, Wolf Creek Ski Area, School District 9-R and a matching $10,000 state of Colorado grant from Region 9 Economic Development District. The first piece of business was to direct Berman, as a private consultant, to conduct a feasibility study on producing biodiesel seed crops and processing the fuel in Southwestern Colorado.

Right now, Berman said, most of the commercial biodiesel in the area, a 20 percent biodiesel/80 percent diesel blend called “B20,” comes from Iowa by way of a company called Blue Sun. He said growing the crops in Southwest Colorado and processing the fuel locally would have numerous benefits. For starters, a local facility would create jobs, thus promoting economic sustainability, and area farmers would benefit from growing a viable crop. On a larger scale, there are the obvious environmental benefits of biodiesel, which burns cleaner than traditional petroleum, gets better mileage than gasoline and comes from a renewable resource. It also would improve national security by lessening our dependence on foreign oil, he said.

“It will allow us to control our own energy system,” he said. “If we can grow oil-free crops locally, why shouldn’t we own the production systems as well?”

Greg Vlaming, a horticulturist with the CSU Extension Office in La Plata County and president of the biodiesel coop, said although the group is still in its infancy and the feasibility study has yet to be finished, early indicators are promising.

“The pre-release of the feasibility study looks really good,” he said. “And with gas prices only getting higher, I think it’s a great idea.”

Vlaming, a farmer himself, said that currently, farmers near Dolores are growing 100 acres of test crops, with sunflower showing the most success.

“We have dry land farmers who are interested in putting it into their rotation,” he said.

Vlaming said from there, producing biodiesel is a “very easy” process.

However, where things get difficult is in the details, he said, namely in the logistics of ownership and distribution of the fuel. “Once the feasibility study is done, the board will need to make some critical decisions on what we’ve found,” he said.

Right now, the idea is to sell back to the local fleet owners who helped fund the 4 study. And since it is common for biodiesel demand to outstrip supply, there is a possibility that the fuel may never reach public hands. Nevertheless, he said the group is not “ruling anything out.”

Berman, who said the study should be completed soon, envisions a jointly owned facility. “I believe a cooperatively owned facility makes sense,” he said. “It keeps ownership local and decision-making local.”

Even if the fuel is never sold directly to the public, the public will still have access to it in other ways. For example, the City of Durango has used B20 biodiesel in all 60 of its diesel fleet vehicles for more than a year, including the trolleys, said Roy Peterson, facilities and fleet manager. Likewise, Durango Mountain Resort uses the fuel in its buses and on-mountain vehicles.

According to Peterson, the city pays between 12 and 15 cents a gallon right now just to transport biodiesel from the Front Range. Thus, having a competitively priced local source could save the city thousands each year.

“If there was a local biodiesel facility, then absolutely we’d buy it there,” he said. While Peterson said the city is still assessing the mechanical benefits of the fuel, Loryn Kasten, DMR spokeswoman, said the resort has seen improvement in its biodiesel fleet’s performance. Last season was the first year the resort used the B20 blend exclusively in its on-mountain fleet, such as groomers and snowcats, as well as its buses, which travel within the resort and between the resort and town.

“It burns so much cleaner, and our equipment runs smoother, so we can run our machines with less maintenance,” she said.

Although biodiesel costs more than conventional diesel, she said the pay offs, especially the environmental ones, are worth it. Furthermore, if the fuel was available in large quantities locally – last year the on-mountain fleet used 20,000 gallons – it could help offset costs.

“Right now, our fleet manager has to drive to Denver to pick it up,” she said. “So, he’s really excited about a local plant. It’ll be so much easier and convenient.”

Laura Lewis, economic development planner for Region 9, also spoke to the plan’s economic upsides. “With gas prices so high, having a local biodiesel production facility could make biodiesel just as economical as petroleum,” she said. Furthermore, she agreed with Berman that local production would supply jobs, benefit farmers and help diversify the economy.

“We are all about trying to promote a more diverse economy,” she said.

But for Vlaming, also a biodiesel user, the bottom line is the environmental factor. “This would bring sustainability full circle,” he said.

Vlaming said he has been burning B20 biodiesel exclusively in his Dodge truck since February, with no retrofitting and no noticeable depreciation in performance.

“Since it cleans the engine, every so often I have to clean the fuel filter,” he said. “But other than that, it runs great. There’s been no drop-off in anything – except tailpipe emissions.”

 

 

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