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Biodiesel: Growing A New Energy Economy Paperback – January 15, 2005
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Reviewed by David White for Academia
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that oil production will peak in 2037 - but theirs is one of the most optimistic assessments. Many experts are looking for production to peak by 2010, and one says it already peaked in 2004. With dwindling resources, and a rapidly growing demand fueled by increasing US consumption and the exploding economy of China, fuel oil and gasoline prices are heading for radical price hikes unlike anything we have seen before. With so much of the world's economy tied inexorably to energy costs, the resultant impacts could prove catastrophic.
Biodiesel is both hopeful and alarming. Pahl does a great job providing a background to the Biodiesel story and its chances of addressing the looming energy crunch. He offers a ray of hope, while tempering his optimism with a real assessment of how much help a biodiesel component to the economy can actually provide.
Pahl states: "Total global output of biodiesel is approaching 2 million metric tons (570 million gallons) annually…By comparison, the United States alone consumes approximately 58 billion gallons of middle-distillate fuels annually…" (Middle-distillate fuels include diesel fuel, heating oil, kerosene, jet fuels, and gas turbine engine fuels.) So how much help can biodiesel be?
The book is divided into four sections - "Biodiesel Basics", "Biodiesel around the World", "Biodiesel in the United States", and "Biodiesel in the Future".
"Biodiesel Basics" covers the invention of the diesel engine and the different fuels used historically throughout the world. Initial fuels used in the diesel engine were often biodiesels - until the cheapness of petrodiesel (petroleum derived fuel) locked up the market. The section also covers some of the various types of crops that can be used to create viable biodiesel - such as rapeseed, sunflowers and soy beans - and the methods of processing these crops into fuel.
"Biodiesel around the Word" and "Biodiesel in the United States" cover the history of bio-fuel development in each of those regions. The Europeans have had a more consistent history of experimenting with production and utilization, and have higher percentages of actual biodiesel use than the United States. The U.S. development of biodiesel often spikes after energy crunches, with tax incentives and research funding drying up once the crisis is over.
It could already be too late to implement a systematic biodiesel production and distribution network that will be able to shoulder some of the burden from the dwindling petrochemical supply. Such systems take time to put in place - and even IF we started now it would take several years before biodiesel would begin to flow. Farmers would need to changeover to growing appropriate crops; productions facilities would need to be developed; distribution systems would need to be created or converted. All of that takes time - time that is rapidly disappearing if we have any hope of avoiding serious economic consequences from the coming energy scarcity.
Review of Biodiesel
From Farmer's Market Online
The potential of biodiesel to replace petroleum-based diesel (petrodiesel) fuel is not new. Farmers and alternative fuels advocates have been experimenting with and using vegetable oils to operate tractors, trucks, generators and all sorts of other engines for decades.
"Other renewable energy strategies such as solar, wind, ethanol, and fuel cells have received most of the media attention," author Greg Pahl points out. "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."
Most folks, for instance, associate "diesel" with petroleum and fossil fuels. Pure biodiesel has either; it is entirely made up of plant-based oils or animal fats.
In Europe, Pahl reports, biodiesel has been manufactured on an industrial scale since 1992 and with strong government support from the European Union it has replaced 2 percent of the petrodiesel use in member countries. The goal there is to increase that percentage to 5.75 by 2010 in order to reduce dependence on foreign oil and to cut back on greenhouse emissions.
Here in the U.S., where the petroleum industry exerts more control, there has been much less investment in and promotion of biodiesel? until recently. errorism, Middle East conflicts, global warming, rising petroleum prices and the steady depletion of proven reserves has intensified interest in alternatives. And of all the fuel alternatives currently available, according to Pahl's assessment, biodiesel offers the most feasible, cost-effective and beneficial option for the near future.
"Biodiesel produces lower quantities of cancer-causing particulate emissions, is more biodegradable than sugar, and is less toxic than table salt," Pahl points out. "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."
Pahl's book recounts the story of Rudolph Diesel's late 19th century invention of an engine that could run almost anywhere using a wide range of local fuels. And he reports on the research of University of Idaho professor Charles Peterson who, nearly a century later, perfected the process of transesterification that produces biodiesel fuel from alcohol and vegetable oils or animal fats.
As detailed in this book, biodiesel capable of fueling a modern diesel engine can be produced by the gallon at home or on an industrial scale in a plant located almost anywhere. Feedstocks for the fuel range from oilseed plants, mustard seed, soybeans and corn to used cooking oil, animal fats and even algae.
If all these feedstocks are exploited and America's fallow fields are put to work producing oilseed, biodiesel may eventually provide 10 to 20 percent of the current diesel fuel used in this country. That's not enough to meet current and future energy needs, the experts quoted in this book agree, but it could help ease the transition away from our heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
Brave new (greasy) world
Assessing the global potential of biodiesel
Reviewed by Laura Sayre
April 1, 2005
If you haven't yet given much thought to biodiesel, put Greg Pahl's Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy near the top your reading list. My advice is to start not with the introduction--you're probably already familiar with why and how urgently we need develop alternatives to petroleum energy--but to jump in pretty much anywhere else, and then sample your way around the chapters as the feeling grabs you. Apart from the first few pages, this is an inspiring, startlingly positive tale, and one that could potentially do more to change Americans' energy use habits than any of the "end of the petroleum age" titles currently crowding the booklists.
Perhaps the best index of biodiesel's viability is that its current use exceeds its public recognition. Unlike hydrogen, which is hyped by the White House and in full-page glossy magazine ads from General Motors, biodiesel is a fully practicable, ready-to-go alternative fuel technology that doesn't require a total overhaul of our energy infrastructure. Unlike ethanol, which has received strong government support for decades, biodiesel actually yields more energy than it takes to create. Biodiesel produces significantly lower carcinogenic tailpipe emissions than petrodiesel, "is more biodegradable than sugar," in Pahl's words, and "less toxic than table salt" (7). It is benign enough to be shipped by UPS, but it can also be readily blended with petrodiesel in any proportion from one percent biodiesel (known as B1) all the way up to 99 percent biodiesel (B99). It can be used in any diesel engine with few or no modifications. Maintenance people for truck and bus fleets that have shifted to biodiesel report improved fuel economy and reduced servicing costs.
For all of these reasons, you may very well have already directly or indirectly consumed energy generated by biodiesel. Although the current biodiesel trend only dates from the mid 1990s (after a scattering of experiments earlier in the century), global biodiesel production now stands at 750 million gallons a year. Most of that is in western Europe--especially Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Spain--but there are strong nascent biodiesel movements in eastern Europe, South Africa, India, Thailand, and Brazil, among other countries. In the United States, biodiesel has been used successfully for several years by the U.S. Postal Service, the National Park Service, and all four branches of the U.S. military, as well as by dozens of municipal and school bus systems. Biodiesel is also currently available at around 300 retail filling stations across the United States and is beginning to be offered by home heating oil companies.
Advances like these mean that biodiesel is bound to shed its low profile before long, and Pahl's handsome, capable book from Chelsea Green will make an excellent part of the new PR package. Pahl has written an accessible, comprehensive introduction to the who, what, where, when and why of biodiesel: "Technically a fatty acid alkyl ester. . . [which] 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. . . . [or] from recycled cooking oil or animal fats" (6).
Pahl opens with a brief account of Rudolf Diesel's development of the diesel engine and his hopes that it would serve as a tool of agricultural development by running on vegetable-oil fuels. (The book's epigraph quotes a speech Diesel delivered in 1912, in which he declared that "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels. . . may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum[.]") Pahl goes to describe, briefly and clearly, the technical aspects of biodiesel production and consumption, including post-Diesel improvements in fuel processing and engine tuning, the relative value of the various feedstocks, and other practical matters such as the development of international biodiesel quality standards and the willingness of engine manufacturers to warranty their engines for use with biodiesel.
Part Two of the book is devoted to a survey of biodiesel developments around the world, while Part Three focuses on activity in the United States--not, Pahl notes, because the U.S. has been a leader in the biodiesel industry (it hasn't), but because "it plays such a key role in the energy dilemma currently facing the planet, [so that] anything the United States does to try to clean up its act will have a significant impact on the rest of world" (149). This is not a manual for brewing your own biodiesel or converting your diesel engine to run on straight vegetable oil--there are other resources for that, which Pahl points to--but it will give you a good solid understanding of the basics of biodiesel and its potential role within a more sustainable energy future.
I should emphasize that Pahl is no wide-eyed, na¯ve enthusiast. He does justice to the frictions within the biodiesel community, notably between the decentralized, grassroots emphasis on running used-fryer-oil (UFO) in vehicles converted to run on straight-vegetable-oil (SVO) and the more ameliorist, mainstream strategy to shift as much diesel usage as possible to a B5 or B20 blend. He duly notes that although much of the early support for biodiesel in this country came from the American Soybean Association, which implemented a soybean checkoff program in 1991 and directed some of the funds toward biodiesel research and legislative efforts, soybeans yield less oil per acre than peanut, safflower, canola, and sunflower (not to mention palm oil, coconut, and jatropha, an inedible tropical shrub). Finally, he stresses that even the most optimistic alternative energy analysts argue that we can probably only replace about 25 percent of our collective diesel usage with biodiesel.
It's interesting to reflect on the parallels between the growth of biodiesel over the past decade or so and the growth of organic farming. Although the overall numbers are still small relative to the conventional/petroleum sector, the current rate of expansion is in the double digits, and major players are starting to sit up and take notice. Both Cargill and ADM have invested in biodiesel processing plants in Europe. As with organics, legislative and regulatory encouragements for biodiesel use are beginning to take effect--Minnesota, for instance, has passed a law requiring that all diesel sold in the state after June 30, 2005, contain 2 percent biodiesel. And of course the rising cost of petrodiesel--like the rising awareness of the external costs of conventional foods--provides the best incentive of all. One hopes these parallels can be strengthened into a common platform for sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy. Who knows? perhaps biodiesel can serve as an end use for the otherwise unmarketable GMO-contaminated corn, soy, and canola crops of the future.
A final word of caution: I guarantee this book will start you thinking about trading in whatever it is you currently drive, getting your hands on an inexpensive, second-hand diesel-engined vehicle and asking your local greasy spoon what they do with their used fryer oil or harassing your nearest filling station about carrying biodiesel. Last time I checked, Chelsea Green was giving away free "Boycott Iraq: Grow Your Own Oil" bumper stickers. Have fun.
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.
Piedmont Biofuels: Greg Pahl's New Book
February 7, 2005
I must say I was startled to see the arrival of Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy.
Apparently Greg Pahl had consulted some of the lists, but the lists I frequent responded to the news of his new book with comments like "Who is Greg Pahl?"
Kumar promised to review it in Fueled for Thought, and while I have been waiting for his thoughts, I just finished the book this morning, and thought I would try my hand at being a book reviewer.
I should say at the outset that in January I submitted a manuscript on biodiesel that is scheduled for publication next fall. My book is largely a chronicle of Piedmont Biofuels, and the folks we have met along the way, told from the same point of view as this blog.
When I saw that Greg Pahl had beat me to the bookstore, I had a momentary flash of panic. At first I was afraid to read it, since I still have time to edit my manuscript. I didn't want to jinx my book, or find myself unduly influenced by Mr. Pahl. My publisher told me to relax, and to go buy a copy. I did that. In fact my copy circulated freely on the train to the NBB. I thought it was lost at one point, and bought another copy from the NBB bookstore.
The book is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, which is a credible and authentic press that focuses on "the politics and practice of sustainable living." A post card marketing piece in the NBB binder referred to Pahl's "essential new book," and I think that is an apt description.
Everyone should buy a copy of this book.
He starts off with a wonderful tale of the mysterious disappearance of Rudolph Diesel, and then wades into the history of vegetable oil as a fuel choice. The book is journalistic, not dry and academic, but delightful to read. I found myself refreshed by his objective point of view.
He tackles biodiesel around the world, and goes at it from a variety of angles. He's got the fear thing, "the end of oil is now" going, and does a good job on the history of research, and trials, and breakthroughs along the way.
It struck me that Greg Pahl had to interview a ton of people for this book, and it seems that he did a good job of bird-dogging down the experts. As a result, it is not told from personal experience. If he has cleaned dozens of 55 gallon drums, he doesn't let that show. When he approaches fuel gelling issues for instance, it is from a factual distance, rather than from someone who has slammed to a halt at the side of the road while insisting on running B100 on a frigid day.
I couldn't tell if he was a wrench turner or an academic. If he's made his own fuel, he doesn't cover the experience. There is no picture of him in the book, so you can't tell by his fingernails.
The book is optimistic, and encouraging, and positive, and I liked it a lot. I would not call it a "critical" look at biodiesel, since he is quick to quote any NBB PR person when he feels the need.
I did hear one dedicated backyarder say, "Tom Leue is the only guy in the whole book with a bucket…" and that is a legitimate gripe. But it's not a book on backyard biodiesel--it's about the entire industry, and backyarders receive scant attention. He does mention the tensions between the B100 Community and members of the NBB, but again, it is done as a distant observer--not from an author with a dog in the fight.
Let's say Greg Pahl is a goalie on the hockey team. He is on the ice, in the game, but standing in the net observing. He gets to watch the whole matchup, without necessarily joining any brawls, getting any penalties, or having to make any fantastic saves. I mean this as a compliment. Ken Dryden was both a successful goalie and writer, and I think Greg Pahl pulls this book off in a similar "spectator" sort of way.
I'm glad this book exists, it is a completely different beast from my own, and for anyone who can't afford 18.00, my two copies will be available at the refinery library by the end of this week.
About the Author
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 also the editor of a weekly arts and entertainment column in the Addison Independent.
In addition, Greg is the author of Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guild to Renewable Energy Options (published in 2003 by Chelsea Green), (published in 2000 by IDG Books), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Saving the Environment (published in 2001 by Macmillan/Alpha Books).
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.
Visit Greg's web site www.gregpahl.com
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Readers should know (and Pahl in fact tells them)that his book is not neutral: he is an unabashed biodiesel proponent. That's not a problem; there is a lot to be excited about when discussing biodiesel. Another warning: if you want to make your own biodiesel (easy to do, actually), go to the Internet, as Pahl concentrates on larger-scale operations. The book's biggest drawback is that the field is changing so rapidly that some of the information (particularly relating to political and commercial developments) is already out of date, even though it was published in 2005.
Nevertheless, Pahl has written what I consider to be the best primer on biodiesel available. Anyone interested in learning about biodiesel should own or have access to a copy.
Otherwise, this is a must read. As most of us are begining to realize, crude oil is going to run out. So the question of what to use for fuel next is not a matter of "IF" but "When" and we as a society need to find alternatives. Bio-Deisel has great potential.
The book is a smooth read. It is engaging and full of detail which is carefully sourced but not dry or boring. I enjoyed it very much.
Diesel-powered vehicles and equipment are everywhere, and are likely to continue to exist for years, if not for generations to come. Buses, trains, trucks, generators, and a growing number of automobiles use diesel fuel. Diesel engines tend to be more fuel-efficient, and last longer, than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Diesel engines get better torque than do gasoline engines, and devote more of their energy to propulsion (what we want), and less to wasted heat (what we don't want). In summary, diesel engines have a lot going for them.
However, the challenge is that diesel, along with its cousin, gasoline, are fossil fuels, whose supplies are, by most reasonable estimates, finite and declining at rates greater than many of us feel comfortable to acknowledge. Diesel fuel, when burned by an inefficient engine, generates a lot of pollution, both real (e.g. particulate matter) and perceived (i.e. billowing clouds of smoke). Diesel has a bad reputation in some circles, and often this is deserved.
Enter biodiesel, a renewable alternative to traditional "petrodiesel". Developed over the past several decades from various plant and animal "feedstocks", biodiesel is a relatively clean-burning fuel that can either supplement or, in some cases, replace the non-renewable petrodiesel. For example, B20 biodiesel, which I use in my 2004 VW Golf, consists of 20% biodiesel and 80% traditional petrodiesel. Overall engine performance is as good as, if not better than, what would be experienced using pure petrodiesel. The greater lubricity of biodiesel prolongs the life of engines that use it; this attribute will grow in importance as diesel suppliers are encouraged or forced to reduce the sulphur content of the fuel... the lower the sulphur, the lower the lubricity.
Other big motivations for using biodiesel are that, as a locally-sourced form of energy, it reduces our reliance on oil from other countries; additionally, there is its tendency to emit fewer toxic substances than an equal volume of petrodiesel. Local farmers, supplying the soybeans or switchgrass that constitute the biodiesel feedstock to nearby refiners, stand to benefit financially. Even used vegetable frying oil from restaurants can be salvaged and, with minimal processing, converted to cleanly burning biodiesel.
Greg Pahl makes the technology of biodiesel production accessible to the layperson; those of us who struggled through high school chemistry can grasp the concepts that Pahl presents so clearly. In a nutshell, many plants that are the beneficiaries of photosynthesis, such as soybeans and canola, hold in their cells energy from the sun, in a similar way that oil in the tar sands holds energy from the sun in the form of plant and animal matter that lived millions of years ago, and has been compressed and preserved.
The future of biodiesel depends on a few factors: education of customers, and governments that offer subsidies to suppliers of "green" energy sources; a steady supply of biodiesel feedstocks, such as soybean oil, canola oil, used vegetable fryer oil, and even animal fat from meat renders; a corresponding steady price for such feedstocks, so that biodiesel production capacity planning can be done with lower risk; a relatively attractive price for biodiesel vis-à-vis petrodiesel prices; cooperation between the large and small biodiesel suppliers; and collaboration between biodiesel suppliers of all shapes and sizes with the traditional petrodiesel vertical infrastructure (from the extraction of raw crude oil, all the way to the retail pumps in your neighbourhood).
Unlike hydrogen technology, biodiesel is a relatively clean, renewable energy source that is in successful, widespread use today: entire school bus fleets in the US run on pure biodiesel, with positive performance results and, happily, lower engine maintenance costs. Politically, it is often a no-brainer for state and local governments to embrace biodiesel use, as it puts money in the pockets of local farmers, and the fuel can be used with no need to convert existing diesel-consuming equipment. However, the traditional petrodiesel industry may well balk at moves to support biodiesel proliferation, since this would dilute, figuratively and literally, the concentration of petrodiesel that its customers necessarily need to buy.
I highly recommend Pahl's book. It provides a balanced view of the benefits and challenges that face biodiesel producers and users. Having said this, Pahl is a cheerleader for biodiesel, and justifiably so. It's hard not to share his enthusiasm.
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It gives a good chapter on the development/adoption of biodiesel around the world.