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Monday, April 11, 2005

Biodiesel Tour!

The Michigan Biodiesel Bus Tour was actually quite an exciting and interesting event. The bus was almost completely full, meaning probably 50 people took part. The first stop was at the Michigan Department of Agriculture's Geagley Motor Fuel Quality Lab, on the MSU campus in East Lansing. This stop was related to biodiesel only in a future sense--the lab currently tests gasoline only, including random spot tests and tests of samples from gas stations consumers have complained about. (If you think you got some bad gas, you can call the MDA fuel quality people and they'll send someone out to take a sample at that station.) The staff at the lab told us that diesel and biodiesel testing would require some additions to their facility. This may be important as different varieties of biodiesel are developed, especially since diesel vehicle manufacturers like Volkswagen are reluctant to honor warranties when biodiesel is used.

This picture was taken at the lab, with the chemist (D) explaining to us how she tests gasoline. Others in the picture:
  • Wayne Hettler (A), maintenance director at St. Johns Public Schools. St. Johns was an early adopter of 20% biodiesel for its school buses, and Wayne has been a tireless advocate of biodiesel ever since, answering questions from around the world. (Article about St. Johns and biodiesel)
  • Gregory Koestering (B), CEO of SERCO LLC. He is building the first commercial biodiesel production facility in Michigan, which he hopes to open by the end of this year. Initial production will come from waste vegetable oil gathered from area restaurants. The plant will be located in Detroit.
  • David Konkle (C), Coordinator of Ann Arbor's Clean Cities Program, one of four representatives of that city agency who took part in today's tour. On the bus, Konkle gave a talk about peak oil and alternative energy as alarmist as anything I've posted here!

The next stop on the tour was Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, where the star of the show was Jim Leidel. I'd already come across Leidel's name in conjunction with my research on the Uni-solar photovoltaic shingles, since Leidel was the guy a the University directing their shingle project. I would go into detail about Leidel's biodiesel presentation, except that he has already posted the whole thing on the web. He made biodiesel for us right before our eyes (and tells us how to do it in the presentation). Also at Oakland, a Daimler-Chrysler engineer seemed rather inordinately proud of their new diesel-powered Jeep Liberty. While it's good to see US (or US-German) automakers building more diesels, I don't think anyone on the tour was impressed with the Liberty's EPA mileage ratings--21 city, 26 highway. (I think Ford's comparably-sized Escape hybrid gets about 10 mpg better than that.) Still, Daimler-Chrysler is well positioned to join Volkswagen as a substantial dealer of diesels in the US, since DC's Mercedes-Benz division has been making diesel passenger cars for 70 years. (He said they currently sell diesel versions of the PT Cruiser, a minivan, and two Jeep models in Europe, where over half of the passenger car market is diesels.)

[Correction, April 19: I got an e-mail from DaimlerChrysler chemist, not engineer, Loren Baird explaining that the Liberty and the Escape are not comparable SUV's--see here for details.]

From Oakland, we headed to the official grand opening of the B20 biodiesel pump at the Meijers gas station on Carpenter Road, between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. This was a definite politician magnet, with Congressman John Dingell and Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje joining seven or eight members of the Michigan legislature in the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Miejers execs who spoke all said they hoped to introduce B20 to many or all of their Michigan stations soon, which would be a huge step for biodiesel. Not only would it make biodiesel much more available--it makes it much more visible. We could see that just during the time we were there at the grand opening--several people who had pulled in to fill up at the station came over and asked about biodiesel.

Two law changes, one already enacted and one being considered, may also give biodiesel a big boost. The one already enacted is a federal law which allows producers of biodiesel to take a $1 credit for each gallon of pure biodiesel they produce. For blends like B20, the credit applies to the proportion that is biodiesel--so they get a 20-cent credit per gallon on B20. This has currently eliminated the price disadvantage that biodiesel was operating under last year. At Meijers today, ordinary petrodiesel and the B20 were at the same price. As oil prices go higher and biodiesel production increases, biodiesel should be cheaper than petrodiesel soon. The other bill, being considered by the Michigan legislature, would require that ALL diesel fuel sold in Michigan be at least two percent biodiesel.

The general mood of the tour, which included farmers, business people, and lots of government types from both city and state levels, was that biodiesel is about to take off in a big way in Michigan. In Leidel's presentation, he included this quote from Governor Granholm's 2005 State of the State Address:
“This investment in Michigan’s future will allow us to transform the state that put the nation on wheels into the state that makes those wheels run on pollution-free fuel cells or bio-diesel
technology; the state where the research into alternative energies is done; the state where the clean technology is developed, and where the clean cars, products, and businesses are built. And, Michigan, the Great Lakes State, could be the state that
finally makes these United States independent of foreign oil.”

More pictures:

What all the fuss was about--Meijers' new biodiesel pump.

Mayor Hieftje was there, just as a Recycle Ann Arbor truck pulled up to the biodiesel pump.

So was Congressman Dingell.

The ribbon cutting.

Full service lives! This VW Golf is getting filled up by seven state legislators.

Of course, the bus for the Biodiesel Tour was running on biodiesel!