Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Commuting on Canola?

Posted by | September 6, 2008

It’s easier to make biodiesel and burn it in your truck than to sort out the politics of whether we should make more or less of the fuel.

I’ve made biodiesel in an open jar. I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way because one step in the process creates impressively toxic fumes. But apart from that, it’s not difficult to whip yourself up a batch. A few idealistic souls are doing exactly that in garages around the Northwest.

The process starts with vegetable oil or animal fat and produces “methyl esters,” the chemical name for biodiesel, and glycerin. (If you go into biodiesel production at home, you’ll end up with quite a bit of glycerin, so you may want to start a soap business on the side.)

Diesel made from petroleum turns to a gel when it’s cold enough, a fact that can render your vehicle impossible to drive on a winter’s morning. It’s not easy to say exactly at what temperature the gel appears  – it depends on several factors. Additives are blended into diesel to help keep it liquid during the winter, but folks who drive diesel cars and trucks also sometimes use electrical heaters to keep their fuel from gelling on truly bitter nights. As it happens, biodiesel gels at warmer temperatures than petroleum diesel, so biodiesel can increase driver headaches in this regard.

The good news about biodiesel is that we can grow the stuff right here in the Northwest. And that means our drop-dead gorgeous, yellow-gold canola fields could fuel your daily commute.

A few weeks ago I talked about biodiesel by telephone with a Ritzville-area farmer. He’s state senator Mark Schoesler and, owing to the miracles of modern technology, we discussed biodiesel while he was actually harvesting a canola field.

Schoesler believes biofuels have a place in our energy future, but he’s the first to admit we cannot grow our way out of all our energy problems.

“Biodiesel is only a small piece of the puzzle. It could give us 2 to 5 percent of our diesel using present technology,” Schoesler said to me over the roar of his machinery.

But it’s also true we are making more and more biodiesel as the years go by. In 2007 production was a staggering 200 times what it had been at the start of this century.

“The growth rate has been driven by both mandates and subsidies,” said Douglas Young, an agricultural economist at Washington State University.

All energy in this country – from coal to nuclear power – is subsidized to some extent. The subsidies on ethanol and biodiesel, our two major biofuels, are substantial. Ethanol is subsidized by the federal government at 50 cents per gallon and biodiesel at $1 per gallon.

“You pay for that every April 15,” Young said with a smile.

Those subsidies are the “carrot” that’s increasing production. Another tool we are using is the “stick” of mandates. The Washington legislature, for example, has mandated that diesel sold in the state will be on average 2 percent biodiesel.

Although he is a farmer, Schoesler voted against the mandate.

“I felt we were moving faster than agricultural and scientific and economic practice really warranted,” he said.

One cause of the recent increase in the price of food, Young tells me, is biofuel. We are literally burning some vegetable oil (as biodiesel) and a whole lot of corn (as ethanol), and naturally the price of those foodstuffs goes up.

Young adds that adverse weather, like the Iowa floods, and increasing numbers of wealthier customers in China and India – who are now in a position to enjoy more meat – also boost a host of food prices.

If it’s any comfort in light of your escalating grocery budget, the biofuel industry is also suffering due to high commodity prices. With those prices high, businesses that invested in processing plants to turn crops into fuel are faltering and even failing.

“It’s a bit of a treadmill. If we want to keep them all in business, we’ll need greater subsidies. But if we move in that direction, we’ll create even higher prices,” Young said. “The politics of biofuels has outpaced the agricultural science, engineering and economics we need to make good public decisions. You can quote me on that – and put the quote in all capital letters.”

Schoesler heartily agreed with that sentiment.

From what I can see, energy policy is way more complex than chemistry.