Local Farm, to Local Food, to Local Fuel
The Everpure Biodiesel Co-op aims to put the ‘bio’ back in biofuels.
The best way to get energy out of food is to eat and go for a walk. The next best way to get energy out of food may be to drive your diesel car, truck or tractor down to Jay’s Automotive in Hillsburgh, which is now one of few places in Canada where you can fill your tank with B100, that is, 1oo-per-cent biodiesel, made from recycled vegetable oil.
The pump is operated by Everpure Biodiesel, a co-op that has just sprung up as a joint venture between Hillsburgh’s Everdale Environmental Learning Centre, Dufferin’s Power Up! Renewable Energy Co-op (PURE), and Erin farmer and polymath Jay Mowat.
A twenty-dollar Everpure membership gets you the right to buy guilt-free “bio-D” at the co-op’s Hillsburgh pump and a voice in its mission to build a local, sustainable biofuel system.
Okay, if you’ve been reading the news, you’re probably already skeptical.
Everpure chose interesting times to launch its product: “Biofuel” has recently become a dirty word, blamed for everything from deforestation in Indonesia to rising food prices and rice riots in the Philippines.
But the fledgling co-op is determined to put the “bio” back in biofuel.
It envisions a future where your trip to the fast-food restaurant in a diesel car is powered by oil that comes from the canola fields along the highway you took to get there, and was first used to cook your order of French fries.
For what sounds like a pie-in-the-sky, retro-hippie fantasy, it’s remarkably close to becoming reality. The Everpure pump is phase one of a process that will eventually see vegetable oil pressed from the crops of member farmers, “rented” to member restaurants for cooking, then collected and processed by the co-op into biodiesel for use in members’ vehicles – including, fittingly, the trucks and tractors of the farmers who produced the original crop, who can then go off to plant the next crop of soy or canola, which will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows.
Unlike the other common biofuel, ethanol, which is a gasoline substitute typically produced by distilling fermented food crops such as corn or wheat, biodiesel is a diesel substitute derived entirely from vegetable or animal fats. It’s a favourite grassroots biofuel because you don’t need anything as complicated as an oil refinery or even a distillery to make it. Anyone can print plans off the Internet and make biodiesel in a jar or with a home reactor built from hardware-store parts.
You convert vegetable oil or fat to biodiesel by heating it and mixing in readily available chemical catalysts (usually methanol and lye) to separate it into two parts: methyl-esters (biodiesel) and glycerin. The glycerin byproduct can be used for making soap, among other things.
With the glycerin removed, the biodiesel has a watery consistency like regular diesel, but it smells more like fryer grease than petroleum. It’s biodegradable, non-toxic, and, when burned, it emits a pleasant odour like French fries.
And if you happen to smell French fries behind a Jeep Liberty or Volkswagen Golf in this area, Paul Harris is likely at the wheel. Harris, the former owner of a plastic packaging company who jokes he’s converted to “Mister Environment” in his retirement, sits on Everpure’s steering committee. He bought his two diesel-powered vehicles specifically because of diesel’s 25 to 30 per cent better fuel economy over gas, and also with the hope of eventually running them on B100.
Harris will tell you that the innocuous smell from the tailpipe is telltale of biodiesel’s clean environmental report card. As the only biofuel to be thoroughly tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it’s proven to have much healthier emissions than petroleum diesel.
According to the EPA, compared to conventional diesel, B100 reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 48 per cent, particulate matter by 47 per cent, and acid rain-causing sulfates by 100 per cent. Various other smog- and cancer-causing emissions are also reduced by up to 9o per cent.
These benefits more than make up for the downside: slightly higher emissions of nitrogen oxides.
Best of all from a climate-change perspective, biodiesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 78 per cent, because it is derived from a plant crop that removes carbon from the atmosphere as it grows.
Before spinning off the Everpure co-op, Jay Mowat and the Everdale Environmental Learning Centre in Hillsburgh started brewing biodiesel in small batches in homemade reactors. But to produce enough to sell, let alone incubate the Headwaters’ own oil patch, the reactor needs to be much bigger, producing a hundred thousand litres a year or more.
Until there is enough local demand to warrant building a plant, Everpure decided to develop its fuel chain from the downstream end by selling a product made elsewhere. Fortunately, one of Canada’s only B100 producers happens to be located not too far away, in Owen Sound.
Greg Lougheed was the third generation of his family to work in the commercial fishing industry until his interest in biofuels boomed into a second career just a few years ago.
Now, Lougheed turns vegetable oils discarded by margarine and potato chip factories and local restaurants into biodiesel – 200,000 litres of it last year. That sounds like a lot but, in perspective, he estimates it equals the consumption of about 200 people, or 0.2 per cent of his region’s total diesel appetite of about 100 million litres a year.
(Canadians use about 60 billion litres of fuel annually to power their cars and trucks, about one-third of that, or 19 billion litres, is diesel.)
Lougheed sells B100 out of a fuel truck and one pump. He’s more than doubling production this year, but still can’t keep up with demand, so he’s happy to help a neighbouring biodiesel start-up.
“I’m open source,” he says. “There’s so much diesel fuel being used around Ontario, it’s absolutely ridiculous to look at anything as competition. I believe that diesel fuel and biodiesel should be decentralized, so instead of having some huge plant that pays a bunch of fancy engineers all the money, everybody should be able to produce fuel, keep the money local and not have such an impact hauling tractor trailer loads of fuel around.”
After priming its pump with Lougheed’s B100, Everpure’s next mission is to sign up as many drivers as possible, building from its twenty-seven already committed members to hundreds, who could conceivably be serviced by satellite fuel stations in Orangeville and other local centres.
The price should be about the same, possibly even less, than regular diesel, since there is no tax on biodiesel. The only limitation is the number of diesel vehicles, and the number of drivers willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar fuel.
Although biodiesel blends of up to B20 (2o per cent biodiesel and 8o per cent petroleum diesel) are now widely accepted, car manufacturers don’t yet endorse B100. However, fans like Paul Harris say there’s no good reason why you can’t pour B100 straight into an ordinary diesel vehicle, as he is now doing with his two cars.
In fact, Harris says it’s a natural lubricant that burns cleaner than regular diesel and prolongs engine life. There are a few issues, like clogged fuel filters until the detergent-like B100 flushes the petro-diesel gunk out of your engine, or the corrosion of rubber fuel hoses and gaskets on old vehicles (early ’9os or older). There is also the problem that B100 has freezing properties similar to water, so in the winter it needs to be mixed with regular diesel – Everpure’s pump will run spring through fall. But aside from those trifles, there’s little to be worried about.
“My evangelical mission is to say to people ‘Get off your gas engines!’” says Harris. “Get a diesel! It’s more efficient. Now we’re going to give you a fuel that burns cleaner than both diesel and gas. What are you waiting for?”
Of course, you may be waiting to hear that biofuels will do more environmental good than harm. Rest assured, in terms of “energy balance” (the energy given back for the amount invested to produce it), biodiesel rates very well – about 3.2 to 1 for biodiesel from virgin soybean oil, according to the U.S. government. That’s much better than the numbers for the controversial corn ethanol that now consumes a third of the U.S. corn crop.
The process to produce ethanol requires huge inputs of water and heat, which in some plants is generated from burning coal. Although claims that corn ethanol actually has a negative energy balance have been largely discredited, a recent National Geographic article puts its energy output-to-input ratio at an underwhelming 1.3 to 1.
However, even if biodiesel is energy efficient, there’s still the problem that using virgin oil for biodiesel takes farmland away from food production. Also, the 78 per cent carbon dioxide reduction credited to biodiesel doesn’t take into account the environmental cost of cutting down rainforests and burning peat lands to grow oil crops in places like Indonesia, where large-scale biodiesel producers are now turning to palm oil plantations to find cheap virgin vegetable oil (the oil-per-acre yield of palm is about thirteen times that of North American soy).
A study in the journal Science found that clearing wild land to grow biofuel crops (ethanol or biodiesel) releases between 17 and 42o times as much carbon dioxide as those biofuels save each year. That’s like switching to biofuel and then having to wait 42o years for the payoff.
“As soon as people hear the word ‘biofuel’ they’re thinking either it’s made from corn ethanol, which is bad, or it’s made from palm oil, which is bad, and this is neither of those processes,” says Paul Harris. “It’s a local, sustainable, closed loop.”
Everpure also stresses that it won’t take anything out of the food supply. “We don’t believe that you should be using food land to grow fuel,” insists Jay Mowat. “We think that’s wrongheaded. We will only buy biodiesel made from recycled product.”
If anything, Everpure will promote food security by ensuring a local market and stable fuel prices for area farmers.
Along with conquering the biofuel myths, building its membership base and establishing the local demand for biodiesel, Everpure’s other goal this year is signing up restaurants to provide waste oil, which for now will go back to Lougheed’s plant. Harris isn’t willing to predict what volume of oil they might generate, but says by casting the net within a 75- to 100-kilometre radius they could take in restaurants from Brampton and Guelph to Orangeville.
If things go well, the co-op’s next step, within what it hopes will be a year or two, will be to close the loop by building its own production facility and enlisting local farmers to grow the oilseed.
Bob Wilson is one of a couple of farmers on Everpure’s steering committee who will be doing the calculations this summer, trying to figure if the closed-loop dream will work financially for his soybean crop. Wilson farms about 550 acres and burns 15,000 litres of diesel a year.
“This takes us back to the days when we were farming with horses and growing our own fuel for horses,” he says. “And in fact the numbers work out quite similarly. Farmers used about 20 per cent of their acreage to feed their horses. If we go to biofuels I think we end up in the same ballpark.”
Until trials are complete, Wilson can’t predict whether the co-op model will be as profitable for him as simply selling his beans and using the money to buy fossil fuel, but he likes the notion of going back to old-time self-reliance. “If we can make this thing work, at least then I would have fuel security. If you think back to the 1976 energy crisis, it wasn’t a guaranteed thing that you could pick up a phone, make a call and get fuel delivered.”
There’s something comforting about a closed-loop system that keeps everything close to home. It’s maybe not as tight a loop as farming the land with the horses that feed off of it. Or as tight a loop as eating an apple and going for a walk in the orchard. But for these complicated times, when every drop of fuel contains a world of trouble, it sounds pretty damned good.
Biodiesel Power: The Passion, the People, and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel, by Lyle Estill, New Society Publishers, 2oo5
From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, by Joshua Tickell, Biodiesel America, 2ooo