Biodiesel backfire

Pub date April 17, 2007


On May 18, 2006, Mayor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Directive 06-02 — also referred to as the Biodiesel Initiative — ordering the city of San Francisco to switch to a fuel blend that includes at least 20 percent biodiesel in all of its diesel vehicles. The move won environmental plaudits: the National Biodiesel Board cited the plan as being the farthest-reaching proclamation of its kind.

It was the kind of ambitious program that played up the mayor’s environmental credentials. Biodiesel is made not from petroleum but from renewable domestic resources such as vegetable oil. It produces far fewer greenhouse gases and toxic byproducts than traditional diesel and can work with any standard diesel engine.

Using just 20 percent biodiesel in the fuel mix can reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 12 percent and smog-forming hydrocarbons by 20 percent.

And Newsom insisted this wasn’t a far-off dream: he projected that a full 25 percent of the city’s diesel fleet would be using the green fuel by March 31, 2007, and every last bus, street cleaner, and fire truck would be switched over by the end of the year.

But March 31 has come and gone, and the city isn’t even close to meeting that goal.

San Francisco uses approximately eight million gallons of diesel fuel per year, in vehicles ranging from heavy-duty fire engines to street sweepers, airport shuttles, and maintenance vehicles. The biggest user by far is Muni, which burns as much as six million gallons annually.

And Muni is way behind on its biodiesel deadline. In fact, the agency has yet to submit its pilot proposal to the Department of the Environment. And while clean vehicles coordinator Vandana Bali told us 33 of Muni’s nonrevenue vehicles are being fueled with B20 — the mandated mix of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent traditional petroleum product — she was unable to offer even a tentative timeline for introduction of the less-noxious fuel into Muni’s diesel bus fleet.

Converting Muni to biodiesel hasn’t been as easy as Newsom projected. Much of the bus fleet uses a high-tech emission control system, and the manufacturer hasn’t approved the device for use with biofuels.

And then there are the transition issues.

Mike Ferry, a firefighter at the San Francisco Fire Department, which runs about 150 diesel vehicles, told us the department had to put a lot of time and money into upgrading its infrastructure for biodiesel.

Regular diesel is a fuel that practically takes care of itself, even under substandard conditions — but biodiesel requires better storage conditions, more regular rotation, and cleaner tanks. And although diesel engines require little to no modification to be compatible with biodiesel blends, it’s often necessary to change out the fuel filter before introducing the biofuel, to prevent clogging.

The fire department also has to clean out all 20 of its diesel storage tanks, at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000 a tank.

But for a department with an annual budget of $220 million, that’s not a vast amount of cash. And several other city departments have managed to comply with Newsom’s edict. San Francisco International Airport started using B20 in 19 airport shuttles in July 2006, and the entire inventory of approximately 150 diesel vehicles switched to B20 on a permanent basis the following September.

The city’s central shops, where more than 900 diesel vehicles — including street sweepers and Recreation and Park Department equipment — are fueled, switched one of two diesel tanks over to B20 in 2006 and the second on March 15, 2007. Jim Johnson, superintendent of central shops, estimates that the agency uses about 650,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.

But compared with the six million gallons of diesel fuel used by Muni, 650,000 gallons is a drop in the municipal bucket. In fact, while the Biodiesel Initiative was designed to spare the air the effects of at least 1.6 million gallons of petrodiesel annually, 20 percent of 650,000 gallons is just 130,000 gallons of pure biodiesel. Even adding in the approximately 5,000 gallons of B20 per month used by the airport and the 2,000 gallons (out of 170,000) per month currently being used by the Fire Department, the city still falls short of 25 percent implementation by a large margin.

Nathan Ballard, a spokesperson for Newsom, told us the mayor had discussed the situation with Muni before making his public statement and at the time Muni officials were fully supportive of the plan.

It’s still possible for the city to get closer to Newsom’s emissions-reduction goal: even if Muni is unable (or unwilling) to make the shift, other agencies could increase the amount of biodiesel they put in the mix. Most vehicles can run fine on 100 percent biodiesel. But December is fast approaching — and it’s hard to see how Newsom can make his promise come true. *

For more SFBG biodiesel coverage, click here