This question and answer package continues October's American Agriculturist interview with K. Gifford Foster, a South Plymouth, N.Y., farmer who manufactures his own diesel fuel from waste vegetable oils.
Foster and his Connecticut-based business partner Dodie Perez address some key concerns. Following are their responses.
Q: Aren't there cold weather flow issues?
A: Yes. Biodiesel tends to gel at higher temperatures than regular diesel fuel. Additives can reduce it in either case.
If the weather gets frigid, like last winter, we'll add kerosene to decrease the viscosity. We do that for the tractors also. In the trucks, we cut it with regular winterized diesel.
Racor and at least one other diesel filter manufacturer make heated diesel fuel filters and in-fuel-line heaters. We are currently investigating them. One concern is that some heaters don't provide enough heat.
With trucks converted to straight vegetable oil or WVO, a two-tank system is often used. They'll start the engine on regular diesel fuel, then switch to biodiesel.
Q. Is there really enough waste vegetable oil available locally to make this practical?
A: My personal knowledge of the current WVO situation is limited to what I've encountered, heard and read. But there are municipalities that now ban WVO from their land fills. (It shouldn't go there in the first place.)
At this time, there's far more supply, then demand. Most restaurants must pay to have their waste oil disposed of. When it becomes a demandable commodity, I can only speculate on its availability and whether it'll be sold on the open market.
Right now, every restaurant that we've asked to participate in our biodiesel pursuit does so willingly.
Q: What have you learned about the cost and manpower requirements?
A: Now that I know about processing, I could build a competent 50-gallon processing system for under a thousand bucks, not counting man hours.
Designing, building, operating and maintaining a processor system can be a lengthy and costly ordeal. But I truly believe that anyone who knows how to make a glass of chocolate milk, can at least operate a biodiesel processor.
Q: Is there a minimum size to warrant investment?
A: In our opinion, no. Any sized processor is a good investment in American farm culture and should be an excellent energy cost reducer. With a methanol recapture condenser, your processing costs drop dramatically due to methanol's high initial cost.
If you have an outlet for the glycerin byproduct, that's another cost reduction. Investors like that! If you pick up the WVO with a truck that runs on biodiesel, there's another reduction.
Q: With local road diesel going for about $3.09 per gallon, where lies the breaking point of economic efficiency?
A: The first year we produced our own fuel, if we include all costs associated with our per gallon cost. At $25 per man hour, for all phases of the operation, it came out to roughly $2.75 per finished gallon. That was the first year with the cost of building the processor included.
If our system was as efficient as we want it to be, our cost would be some where around $1.50 per finished gallon - less then half the price of pump diesel. With just operating costs, we can make bio-diesel for about 50 cents a gallon.
Is that incentive enough for small consumers? I'm not an economist, forecaster, commodities broker or a psychologist. I can only say that it was an economic as well as an environmental decision on our part to become involved.
Q: What barriers have you encountered in your quest for micro-biodiesel independence?
A: NYSEG, our electric line supplier, has restrictive rules regarding biodiesel co-generating /net metering. At this point, they don't allow it.
Our idea was to net meter with a biodiesel generator, using the fuel to generate electricity for the farm and send the excess back to the grid for which NYSEG must pay the 'avoided cost' back to the net meter/micro producer.
They've put a lot of red tape between any thing other then photo voltaic, wind power and 'farm waste' (usually referring to anaerobic digesters). I would swear in front of a Senate hearing, that WVO is ultimately farm waste. But I'm just a citizen with a politically inconsequential opinion.
Another is if you don't operate your processor in an agricultural district, you may not be able to store methanol in sufficient quantities for your biodiesel processor. Many town and city ordinances forbid storing any more then a few gallons of hazardous flammable liquids. For a 40-gallon processor, you would need approximately 5.5 gallons of methanol.
There are other issues for the home bio diesel maker, from how to pick up the WVO from the restaurants without spilling it, to final wash proportions.
Q: Where do you see biodiesel refining going in the future?
A: In my opinion, it's now at the point where cell phones were in the 80's. Back then, they came attached to a small, but heavy suitcase.
The technology will inevitably catch up to the demand, but not as fast here in the states as it will in desperate, oil-starved third world countries. It's already happening. Palm oil trees produce more oil per square foot then any other source of biomass. Many equatorial countries are taking advantage of this to produce electricity.