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Benefits, limits of biodiesel highlighted at conference

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The 2014 National Biodiesel Conference + Expo at the San Diego Convention Center has brought together companies and alternative fuel enthusiasts exploring and promoting the use of biodiesel fuel.

Biodiesel’s benefits and limitations were discussed with examples of how some California companies have adapted to using it in at least some of their operations.

Panel members said that in many cases the limitations can be overcome, or at least balanced.

One limitation is biofuel’s corrosive qualities that increase as the blended proportion of biodiesel within the fuel is increased.

The environmental benefits of a popular blend, B20 — which is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel — were enough for San Diego Gas & Electric to make a partial switch to the biofuel.

SDG&E fleet supervisor Lydia Pellecer said that starting as a chemist with SDG&E more than 10 years ago, she has long had a goal of "greening" the company's fleet.

"Being a very conservative company [SDG&E was] very slow to just want to say, 'Yeah, we're going to do this 100 percent,'" Pellecer said.

SDG&E has underground fuel storage tanks at each of its 10 fleet garages. Two of them are fully equipped to store B20.

After a great deal of background investigation to get her company on board — and with some modifications made to the tanks — Pellecer said the B20 blend hasn't shown any signs of breaking down materials on the tanks.

There's a reason the utility has limited its biodiesel switch to only two tanks so far: It doesn't want to be left with biodiesel that has gone bad.

The biodiesel changes chemically over time. Panel moderator Andy Christman said that 100 percent biodiesel has a shorter shelf life than traditional petroleum-based diesel, and that it should be tested after six months in storage.

The B20 blend shelf life may depend on the conditions in which it is stored, he added.

"It's one of the reasons why using biodiesel in backup emergency generators is a challenging venture," Christman said, "because the fuel can sit for nine months."

In response, Pellecer said two of the utility's 10 generators will probably remain storage for petroleum diesel.

In the 10 years since the University of California San Diego began using biodiesel, it has expanded its use from an introduction of B5 to now running some of its equipment on B99.

"We wanted to reduce our reliance on foreign oil," said Greg Nishihira, operations manager of fleet services at UCSD.

But the university's goal was larger, he said. UCSD’s plan was to be carbon-neutral by 2025, and biodiesel has become a major complement to other programs, such as the use of compressed natural gas use and a transition to hybrid vehicles.

In 2004, the university gave itself a 10-year goal of having half of its 925-vehicle fleet running on something other than petroleum. The campus has surpassed that mark with 55 percent.

"The nice thing about biodiesel was that our (underground storage tanks) were in place, so the infrastructure cost was low," Nishihira said. “Biodiesel was nice because it was readily available and it was something we could jump into right away."

The university collaborated with a student organization called Biodiesel Action Awareness Network to procure a bus with a donated diesel engine from Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT), running it on increasingly concentrated blends of biodiesel, from B5 to B99.

Caterpillar was given the data from each phase, and UCSD gained a wealth of knowledge from the transition. All the way through the use of B99, no power loss was noticed, Nishihira said.

UCSD also contributed on the other end of the biodiesel spectrum, donating its waste cooking oil to New Leaf Biofuel, which refines the oil in San Diego and distributes it to UCSD and San Diego Airport Parking Co., for example.

The operations manager at San Diego Airport Parking Co., Lisa McGhee, said that although her involvement in biodiesel started about three years ago — as her company's response to increasing demands for alternative fuel use from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority — she found the switch to be informative.

She found out that the switch to B20 for her Sprinter shuttles was possible without major modifications to the vehicles.

She had limited choices to begin with as a shuttle operator, including switching to compressed natural gas and propane, but she found both of those choices to be much more complex.

They would require much more regulatory oversight and changes to the vehicles, she said.

McGhee said she realized that because of the solvent qualities of biodiesel, more frequent particulate filter changes were necessary at first after the vehicles were transitioned.

Pellecer said she experienced similar issues with SDG&E's underground storage. The good thing, they said, is that it's temporary.

"It does have a cleaning effect on your underground storage tank, where diesel is very dirty," Pellecer said. "But long term, it should really just even out."

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