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Growing a New Energy Economy

by Greg Pahl

Chelsea Green, 2d ed., 2010, paperback, 298 pages

When Rudolph Diesel invented his engine in the late nineteenth century, he envisioned a device that could run anywhere on a wide range of local fuels. A century later, Greg Pahl recalls that vision and shows us it is possible.

Praise for Biodiesel

"Greg Pahl's new biodiesel book offers a comprehensive review of all things veggie oil powered. From the history of the diesel engine to the development of the biodiesel industry, past current and future. This is the ultimate primer." —Rob Elam, Propel Project

Quotes from Biodiesel

From the Introduction

It’s going to take a huge cooperative effort on the part of the entire global community to wean ourselves from our present addiction to fossil fuels in general, and petroleum in particular. Many alternative strategies that rely on various forms of renewable energy, including wind, solar, and geothermal, are gaining in popularity. But running most vehicles directly on these forms of renewable energy, given present technology, is not practical. “And even though technology allows for greater fuel efficiency than ever before, cars and other forms of transportation account for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global oil consumption,” according to the Worldwatch Institute’s recent annual report, State of the World 2004.

Ninety-five percent of global oil is consumed for transportation! This statistic points right to the heart of the problem. Some people suggest that compressed natural gas (CNG) could serve as a substitute for oil. But using CNG would, at the very least, require expensive retrofitting of vehicles. Unfortunately, natural gas, though cleaner burning, is still a fossil fuel, and natural gas prices have been soaring while world reserves are shrinking almost as fast as those for oil. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are widely viewed as the ultimate solution for the transportation sector. But hydrogen is produced by the electrolysis of water, and the electricity required to produce enough hydrogen to fuel all the cars in the United States would require four times the present capacity of the national grid (unfortunately, the present grid relies on nonrenewable energy sources for 91 percent of its capacity). What’s more, there is no infrastructure for the production and delivery of the vast amounts of hydrogen that would be required. The transition to hydrogen is, at best, a long, long way off.

In the meantime, there is one liquid fuel that is both renewable and can be used in a wide range of vehicles without any modifications to the engines. That fuel is biodiesel. For many years, environmentalists, some farmers, and renewable energy advocates in Europe and the United States have been promoting the use of biodiesel as an alternative to at least a portion of the petroleum-based diesel fuel market. But it wasn’t until the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, that most Americans finally began to realize the implications of their overreliance on oilćespecially Middle Eastern oilćand its heavy economic, political, social, and military costs. The U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan and the subsequent ill-advised invasion of Iraq, with its terrible and costly aftermath, have added urgency to the movement seeking to wean the United States from its almost total addiction to petroleum-based fuels. While many strategies are currently being pursued to accomplish that end, biodiesel is one of the most intriguing and, until fairly recently, one of the least publicized in the United States.

In most of Europe, the general public is aware of biodiesel due to strong governmental support, but the sudden emergence of biodiesel from relative obscurity in the United States has taken many Americans by surprise. While other renewable energy strategies such as solar, wind, ethanol, and fuel cells have received most of the media attention, a group of Midwestern soybean farmers and other entrepreneurs have been quietly building biodiesel production capacity and infrastructure. At the same time, a number of federal and state agencies have been testing and evaluating biodiesel performance and setting up fuel production standards, laying the foundation for a new sustainable energy industry. Based on that firm foundation, the biodiesel industry is beginning to experience dramatic growth, both in production capacity and in the number of retail fuel outlets across the country. Despite that growth, however, many people still have only a vague idea of what biodiesel is, and fewer still understand that it can be used for more than fueling diesel-powered cars or pickup trucks.

What, exactly, is biodiesel, and why is it generating so much excitement? First, it’s important to understand that even though diesel is part of its name, pure biodiesel does not contain any petroleum diesel or fossil fuel of any sort. Biodiesel generally falls under the category of biomass, which refers to renewable organic matter such as energy crops, crop residues, wood, municipal and animal wastes, et cetera, that are used to produce energy. More specifically, biofuels, a subcategory of biomass, includes three energy-crop-derived liquid fuels: ethanol (usually referred to as grain alcohol), methanol (usually referred to as wood alcohol), and biodiesel. Technically a fatty acid alkyl ester, biodiesel can be easily made through a simple chemical process from virtually any vegetable oil, including (but not limited to) soy, corn, rapeseed (canola), cottonseed, peanut, sunflower, avocado, and mustard seed. But biodiesel can also be made from recycled cooking oil or animal fats. There have even been some promising experiments with the use of algae as a biodiesel feedstock. And the process is so simple that biodiesel can be made by virtually anyone, although the chemicals required (usually lye and methanol) are hazardous and need to be handled with extreme caution.

Best of all, biodiesel feedstock sources are renewable and can be produced locally. While fossil fuels formed over millions of years (and are being rapidly depleted), biodiesel can be created in just a few months. The source of the energy content in biodiesel is solar energy captured by feedstock plants during the process of photosynthesis, inspiring some to refer to the fuel as “liquid solar energy.” And the plants grown to make more biodiesel naturally balance most of the carbon dioxide emissions created when the fuel is combusted, eliminating a major contributing factor to global warming. What’s more, the resulting fuel is far less polluting than its petroleum-based alternative; biodiesel produces lower quantities of cancer-causing particulate emissions, is more biodegradable than sugar, and is less toxic than table salt. And because it can be produced from domestic feedstocks, biodiesel reduces the need for foreign imports of oil, while simultaneously boosting the local economy. No wonder there is so much enthusiasm, especially in the agricultural community, about biodiesel: farmers can literally grow their own fuel.

While biodiesel may be a relative newcomer to the United States, in Europe it has enjoyed widespread acceptance as a vehicle fuel (as well as a heating fuel in some countries) due to deliberate government tax policies that favor its use. In Germany, for example, where diesel engines power close to 40 percent of passenger cars, more than 1,800 filling stations offer biodiesel at a price competitive with that of regular diesel due to large tax breaks and subsidies for alternative fuels. (In the United States, by comparison, where only about 1 percent of automobiles are diesel powered and tax policies are generally not as favorable, the number of gas stations offering biodiesel is just over 200.) The expansion of the European Union in May 2004 offered a good deal of additional potential for continued growth in biodiesel production and use in the so-called new accession nations. There is good potential for the industry in many other countries around the world as well.

This book describes biodiesel’s dramatic growth and its potential to help pave the way for an eventual transition from fossil fuels to a wide range of renewable energy sources. It is divided into four parts. In part one we begin this exploration with a look at biodiesel basics. We’ll travel back in time to the nineteenth century to discover the roots of the device that has made the whole biodiesel movement possiblećthe diesel enginećand we’ll learn about its tireless inventor, Rudolf Diesel, and his renewable-fuel vision that is only now being realized. Then we’ll fast-forward to the 1970s to see how and why biodiesel was developed. We’ll also go through the biodiesel production process and examine the many (sometimes quirky) raw materials from which biodiesel can be made, and we’ll explore the fuel’s environmental impact. Finally, we’ll focus on the modern diesel engine and the many uses of biodiesel fuels.

In part two, we’ll travel to Europe, the leader in global biodiesel production, to see why Germany, France, and Italy combined produce nearly eighteen times more biodiesel than the entire United States, and how they managed to gain such a decisive lead. We’ll also visit the other European nations that are busily expanding their biodiesel industries and check out some of the more interesting developments there as well. Then we’ll travel around the world to see other exciting new biodiesel projects from India to Australia and Japan to Brazil.

In part three, our biodiesel odyssey finally arrives in the United States. We’ll look at some early biofuels projects by Henry Ford and see how the fledgling biofuels industry was eliminated by Big Oil and other business pressures. Then we’ll follow the revival of biofuels after the 1973 OPEC oil crisis and the subsequent development of the biodiesel movement in the United States. We’ll also learn about some of the main players in today’s biodiesel industry and take a look at the complex world of biodiesel politics. Then we’ll hear from a number of high-profile celebrities about their use of biodiesel and also see what many different people all across the country are doing with this renewable biofuel today.

In part four, we take stock of the current state of the industry and explore some of the key issues that need to be confronted if it is going to be successful. We’ll also look briefly at a number of concerns that some observers have raised about the ongoing dramatic growth of the industry. And finally, we’ll look into a crystal ball with some of the industry’s key players to try and envision the outlines of where the biodiesel industry may be headed in the future.

While biodiesel is not the single solution to all our energy problems, it can be part of the transition from our current near-total dependency on fossil fuels, while at the same time creating jobs, assisting farmers, reducing harmful emissions, and promoting greater energy security.

Table of Contents of Biodiesel

Foreword by Bill McKibben
Part One Biodiesel Basics

Chapter 1 Rudolph Diesel

Chapter 2 Vegetable Oil Revival

Chapter 3 Biodiesel 101

Chapter 4 Biodiesel’s Many Uses

Part Two Biodiesel around the World

Chapter 5 Europe, the Global Leader

Chapter 6 Other European Countries

Chapter 7 Non-European Countries

Part Three Biodiesel in the United States

Chapter 8 A Brief History

Chapter 9 The Main Players

Chapter 10 Biodiesel Politics

Chapter 11 Recent Developments

Part Four Biodiesel in the Future

Chapter 12 Looking Ahead

About Greg Pahl

Greg Pahl is a 1967 graduate of the University of Vermont and a former Military Intelligence officer in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. A full-time freelance journalist for many years, he has written extensively about the environment, consumer issues, business, and finance for numerous publications, including Vermont Magazine, the Vermont Times, Mother Earth News, The Champlain Business Journal, and many others. He is the author of Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guild to Renewable Energy Options.

Pahl has been involved in environmental issues for more than 20 years. In the 1970s he lived “off the grid” in a home he built in Vermont, with a wind turbine atop an 80-foot steel tower that provided for his electrical needs. He has written about wind power, solar energy, electric cars, sustainable forestry management, and home building materials. He and his wife, Joy, live in Weybridge, Vermont.

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