Biodiesel’s leaps

Pub date February 11, 2009


GREEN CITY Biofuels, which decrease reliance on polluting and planet-cooking fossil fuels, made a couple of big advances in San Francisco in recent weeks.

Michele Swingers and Robin Gold seized the key market by opening Dogpatch Biofuels Station on Pennsylvania and 22nd streets. The youthful partners say it’s the only station in San Francisco selling B100, or fuel made from 100 percent organic matter. San Francisco Petroleum finishes a distant second by selling B20, which is 20 percent biodiesel blended with 80 percent petroleum diesel.

The independent owners of Dogpatch Biofuels take the extra green step by trying to tap production sources that are as local as possible. "We should always be striving for a comprehensive picture of the resources that go into the production and transport of fuel," Swingers said. "We believe that locally sourced biodiesel from recycled oil is a far cry from corn-based ethanol. Further, we believe it’s a sustainable diesel alternative utilizing a waste product."

Dogpatch gets its biodiesel from as far away as Bently Fuels in Reno, Nevada, which blends fuel from recycled components, such as used vegetable oil from restaurants. Many biofuel manufacturers here on the West Coast buy virgin oil from the Midwest because it’s pretty cheap. But buying virgin oil for biofuel can increase the demand for its edible sources, like soybean and rapeseed crops, and drive up the cost of food. Now think about transporting millions of barrels of biofuel by fossil fuel–powered truck across the country. It seems wasteful, defeating the benefits of sustainable fuel.

San Francisco’s municipal fleet is a prime culprit of unsustainable sustainability practices: it buys soybean oil from the Midwest to power its trucks and Muni buses. Karri Ving, Biofuel Program Coordinator for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said that the city’s current system is better than using petroleum diesel from Iraq, but that it could be even more efficient.

Fortunately, Mayor Gavin Newsom just announced the launch of a new project that will take "brown grease" from sewers and turn it into a renewable biofuel for the city fleet. "Turning waste generated by local restaurants and other businesses into a sustainable fuel source is yet another major step in reaching our goals of carbon neutrality for city government by 2020," Newsom said.

He also touted the city’s progress toward other environmental goals, including zero-emission public transit by 2020, a 75 percent recycling rate by 2010, and zero waste by 2020.

"We are not going to be growing soybeans in San Francisco, so why not take this grease and make it into something usable and renewable, for that matter," Ving said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the California Energy Commission awarded the city $1.2 million in grants for the project. The SFPUC will provide a solid model for other cities looking to adopt similar programs and even show them how to save a buck in the process. For example, by putting the biodiesel processor at the site of the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant, the city repurposes property it already owns. Grease already gets stuck inside the plant’s "grease trap," racking up $3.5 million every year in cleanup costs. The new project will potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

"The overall goal is for the wastewater division of the PUC to help the city gain fuel independence to import less diesel and export less grease to surrounding cities," Ving said. "Millions of pounds of rancid material is exported out of the city, making a case for environmental injustice." San Francisco’s brown grease is exported to East Bay landfills, which are often sited in areas with high minority populations. The Oceanside brown-grease project is supposed to be up and running by November.

"So if we can turn that tarlike bunker fuel into a clean-burning biofuel made from restaurant waste, it’s a win on a number of levels," Ving said. "The only downside is that we should have been doing this 50 years ago, but now we’re in a situation where we recognize the global and health issues, and we have a solution that we really want to get moving on."

The fight against local and global climate change is on. With small- and large-scale infrastructure falling into place, the biofuels movement in San Francisco is gathering momentum.