BIOWHAT?Biofuels are blends of fossil fuels and agriculturally derived oils. Most recent attention to this option has been on vehicle fuels: corn-based ethanol has been stretching gasoline supplies while used cooking oil or soybean oil is being mixed with diesel fuel. In most cases, 10% to 20% of fossil-based fuel is being replaced. The same opportunity now exists for those who heat their buildings or make steam using fuel oil.
Depending on the biofuel mix, emissions may be significantly reduced, a boon where environmental regulations are tightening. In a move parallel to buying "green" power, some large facilities are also looking at using biofuels to demonstrate their firms' commitments to a healthier and safer future.
SAVE THE WORLD - AND SOME MONEY?In a pioneering move, New York State recently (July 1, 2006) began offering a $.20/gal tax credit for biofuel heating oil. While the B20 (20% soy-bean oil, 80% #2 fuel oil) blend normally costs about $.10/gal more than standard fuel oil, this credit results in a $.10/gal net savings. Note that this is a tax credit, not an immediate discount: users get the money back when they file their state income tax forms. That means non-profits, government agencies, and others not paying income tax may not be eligible.
In this day of high prices, however, every little bit helps. Even homeowners are switching to B20, which is essentially the same as BioWillie (http://biowillie.com), the diesel fuel promoted for trucks by country singer Willie Nelson.
Other states are considering ways of boosting biofuels for heating (now being called "bioheat"). The greatest impact of this switch will likely occur in the Northeast and some mid-Atlantic states where fuel oil for space heating is common (in most other states, space heating with natural gas prevails).
TECH FACTSWhile higher blends of soybean oil are available, B20 is generally the highest blend recommended at this time. It works fine in #2 fuel oil boilers and has the same heat content, so a gallon of B20 goes just as far as regular fuel oil. Blends with #4 and #6 oil are also available and, unlike those fuels, the soybean component has no sulfur or aromatic compounds so it burns cleaner and smells better.
While the DOE and other agencies provide information on biofuels, the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) offers the mother of all biofuel websites at www.nbb.org. It contains a wealth of useful technical and marketing information, including state-by-state lists of suppliers, distributors, and retail outlets. Queries to it found that B5 is presently the most popular biofuel because it offers the lowest incremental cost and has no issues with solvency, materials compatibility, injector atomization, etc. That blend is also approved by the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA, http://www.nora-oilheat.org/) and is considered viable by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
While blends between 5% and 20% require no modifications to heating systems, those higher than B20 may create problems. NBB cautions that when a higher blend "comes in contact with brass, bronze, copper, lead, tin, and zinc for a prolonged period of time, it will degrade and create sediments. Lead solders and zinc linings should be avoided, as should copper pipes, brass regulators, and copper fittings. Affected equipment should be replaced with steel or aluminum." More information is available at www.biodiesel.org.
To get a good comfort level before ordering a tankful of bioheat, NBB suggests a chat with one's burner and fuel pump manufacturers to determine if either has recommendations or positions on using biodiesel in their equipment. To learn more about B20 and other biofuels, go to the websites mentioned above or Google™ on "bioheat fuel."
Switching to B20 won't solve all our energy problems, but it's an easy way of helping reduce our dependence on foreign oil and cutting emissions (and maybe your fuel bill).