FAQs on biodiesel and Island Biodiesel Co-op


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What is biodiesel?


Biodiesel is a fuel made from either vegetable oil or animal fat and consists of long-chain alkyl esters. It is typically made by chemically reacting lipids (fats) with an alcohol (usually methanol) in a process called 'transesterification,' and which ultimately produces fatty acid esters. In this chemical process, the vegetable oil (or animal fat) is stripped of its glycerol, which is removed from the oil because it overworks engines. Glycerol is a usuable by-product (or co-product) of the process. 


Biodiesel can be made from numerous different sources: canola, soy, peanuts, algae, palm, hemp, sunflower, animal fats, and so on. The diesel engine as originally designed by Rudolf Diesel was meant to run on peanut oil. It can be made from virgin vegetable oil or used vegetable oil, called "waste vegetable oil" (WVO). 


Biodiesel is intended to be used in standard diesel engines--cars, boats, trucks, and so on--and is thus different than regular vegetable oil and waste vegetable oil. It can be used alone or blended with petrodiesel in any proportion. It can also be used as an alternative to home heating oil. 


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What is B100?


When you see a number following the letter "B," it refers to the percentage of biodiesel in a biodiesel blend. Since biodiesel and petrodiesel (i.e. regular diesel) can be mixed at any ratio, it is helpful to know how much biodiesel is in the blend. Thus "B5" refers to a fuel that is 5% biodiesel and 95% diesel. "B50" is half biodiesel and half diesel. The fuel sold by our co-op is "B100," which means that it is pure biodiesel, or, at worst, has only traces of diesel in it. 


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What is waste vegetable oil or WVO?


Waste vegetable oil, or WVO, refers to oil that has been recycled after being used by a restaurant. In our co-op, as with many others, members pick up WVO from participating restaurants and bring it back to a biodiesel-producing facility. One there, the WVO is filtered for food scraps and then undergoes the transesterification process. This process must be done by knowledgeable individuals or organizations, since it involves handling methanol, lye, and large amounts of fuel. 


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What about this business of 'conversions'? Do I need to convert my diesel engine to run biodiesel? 


No. If you want to put WVO directly in to your tank without first having made it into biodiesel, then yes, you'll need to buy an engine conversion kit. But this is not the case for biodiesel, which is refined so that it can run in engines without major modifications. 


HOWEVER, it is strongly recommended that new members speak with mechanics before running a diesel car on biodiesel. It is advisable, moreover, to change the fuel filter shortly after switching to biodiesel. In older cars, it is also advisable to switch out older engine hoses and tubes, since biodiesel can corrode rubber. In terms of general maintenance, it is also wise to change fuel filters regularly--say once or twice per year. 


These things might sound scary, but the reality is that biodiesel is like Drain-o in the engine: it clears out all the gunk and makes your engine run cleaner. Once you clear out all the gunk from years, or decades, of running diesel, your engine is actually much happier. Plus, there's an organic, non-toxic smell that emerges from the exhaust pipe!


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Is biodiesel sustainable? What are the environmental benefits? Does it reduce GHG emissions?


This is a complicated question. To call a fuel sustainable, it implies that it is environmentally friendly, relatively accessible, relatively inexpensive, promotes health and wellbeing, and could, at least in theory, be used indefinitely. Biofuels, in general, can meet these criteria, but they haven't always done so. In parts of Africa and Asia, some forests have been cleared for growing palm-based biodiesel; in the American Midwest, corn-based ethanol has been shown to be very energy intensive, and relies on enormous amounts of fossil fuel to produce a single unit of fuel. 


By contrast, the fuel that our co-op uses is highly sustainable and reduces greenhouse gases (GHGs) considerably. All biofuels are made from carbon that is actively a part of the ecosystem, and thus burning biofuels releases little to no GHGs. How is this possible? Because plants are part of the "carbon cycle." That is, plants take carbon out of the atmosphere while they are alive, and then release the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere once they die (or are burned). This keeps the amount of carbon very stable in the atmosphere. The reason the climate is changing is that carbon that has been buried for a long, long time--in the form of oil, gas, and coal--is released back into the atmosphere (after being burned in engines) and thus increases the overall amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide acts as a blanket that traps the sun's heat in our atmosphere, incrementally raising the surface temperature of the planet and destabilizing climate systems. In short, it throws the whole system out of whack.


Biofuels are part of the carbon cycle and thus, in theory, they can release no (or very little) extra carbon dioxide (or other GHGs) into the atmosphere. The problem is that biofuels, including biodiesel, are only as green as the processes that produce them. When these processes are factored in to environmental accounting systems, via life-cycle analyses (LCA), we learn that biofuels, in practice, cannot reduce GHG emissions entirely. For instance, corn ethanol requires about as much fossil fuel as it displaces in gasoline tanks, and thus it isn't reducing much in the way of emissions. However, the Canadian-grown canola that we use to make our biodiesel is not very fossil-fuel intensive. It does take some fossil fuel to grow canola, to transport it, and so on, but when one factors those fossil fuel inputs into the entire process, our fuel is reducing GHG emissions by "92.5 percent." You can read more in this Lifecycle Analysis of Canola Biodiesel, which was prepared by a Canadian consulting firm on behalf of the government. (The statistic of 92.5 percent comes from p.31 of the report.)


The future of biodiesel is almost certainly not with soy, canola, palm, and other edible plants. It's with algae, which is a non-edible plant that can be grown in lab conditions or on non-arable land, in large outdoor containers. It has a much higher yield of oil than rival biodiesel fuel stocks, and is already being produced for automobiles, jet engines, and so on. But for the time being, biodiesel comes from many different sources, and when attempting to understand its level of sustainability, one must know the amount of fossil fuel that was used to extract/grow, produce, and transport the biodiesel. To put it simply: biodiesel itself is, in theory, very sustainable, but, in practice, is only as sustainable as the processes that made it. 


We produce and sell biodiesel because we believe in 1) energy independence, 2) environmentally sustainable fuel, 3) recycling, and 4) moving away from the fossil fuel paradigm. (We also love diesels!) 


For our money, biodiesel offers the most viable way in which to drive sustainably. 


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Are biodiesel and ethanol the same thing?


No. However, both are biofuels. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, can be used in gasoline engines. It is made primarily in the United States, from corn, and in Brazil, from sugarcane. Ethanol has lower energy content than biodiesel, so it takes 1.5 units of ethanol to do the same amount of work that 1 unit of gasoline can do. Biodiesel, by contrast, is made from other sources and is used only in diesel engines. Biodiesel also has a higher energy content than ethanol. The question of whether ethanol is sustainable is an ongoing question. Originally, it was developed as an additive to gasoline, to serve as a replacement for lead. But production expanded widely in the United States. At the same time, Brazil sought energy independence by making ethanol from sugarcane. The question of whether these fuels are produce more energy than they take to produce remains a vexed question. 


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What about cold weather?


One of the drawbacks of biodiesel is that it coagulates or gels at a higher temperature than does petrodiesel. To get a sense of what this means, put your olive oil in the refrigerator. It will begin to get cloudy. Whereas regular diesel will work in -40C weather, biodiesel will not, which is a problem in cold-weather countries. To deal with this issue, biodiesel enthusiasts in colder climates tend to do one or more of the following during the winter months: add an engine heater to the car, put fuel additives in the biodiesel, and mix biodiesel with petrodiesel at a blend of about 50/50. 


Luckily, since we live in the relatively mild weather of the gulf islands, we rarely deal with these bitterly cold temperatures. However, resistance to the cold is one of the reasons that we ordinarily sell only canola-based biodiesel to our members. We've found, over the years, that canola deals best with cold weather. It doesn't create problems in weather that is -10C, and can even be used in -15C, although fuel efficiency tends to drop a bit in cold temperatures. That is, in the Victoria area, it is fine to run B100 year round, although some of our members mix their biodiesel with diesel from November to March. That's fine, too. 


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What about energy content (mileage)? Is biodiesel similar to that of diesel? 


This is another complicated question. The system designed to answer these sorts of questions relies on BTU equivalents (British Thermal Units). According to this study, B100 has a higher energy content than gasoline, but a slightly lower one than diesel. It has 93% of the energy content of diesel, which means one "loses" 7% when one switches from diesel to biodiesel. However, many biodiesel users have noticed that these numbers can vary significantly from one car to the next, and from one season to the next. For instance, biodiesel-fueled cars tend to get lower mileage in colder temperatures, and some cars seem to have significant reductions in fuel efficiency when biodiesel is run. It just depends. But on the whole, and in general, biodiesel should not drastically reduce one's fuel efficiency, but since biodiesel has lower BTUs than diesel, there is some reduction in efficiency. 


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What about the cost of fuel? 


As recently as 2007, biodiesel was considerably more expensive than diesel. But with increased production and demand, the price has come down. In the opening months of 2014, biodiesel was actually a few cents cheaper than diesel per liter. The price fluctuates a bit, but it's more or less on par with that of diesel. Now that BC ferry prices are climbing, and BC Hydro prices are climbing, biodiesel has become a bit more expensive. Our rates were $1.35/liter for a few years, and are now at $1.50/liter, and will likely stay there for some time. 


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What about road trips? 


If you run biodiesel and are planning on driving long distances, there's a few options for you. The first is to load up on biodiesel in gas cans and put them in your trunk. Biodiesel is not very explosive so it's totally safe. But that's rather impractical. So the other option is to look online for biodiesel stations. They exist all along the west coast of the US, for instance. Barring that, many of our members simply use petrodiesel when far from home. 


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Where can I access your fuel? 


The co-op currently has four "stations" for members. The exact location is shared only with co-op members, for security reasons. However, our stations are entirely in compliance with BC laws, and the police and fire departments are aware of our actions. Two of the stations are in or around Victoria city, one is in Sidney, and one is on a neighboring island. This information, including opening hours and logistics, is shared only with members. It is out hope one day that we can open a more public station, but until that happens, the semi-private ones remain our modus operandi. 


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What about deliveries? 


If members want to set up a rain barrel or fuel tank, then the co-op is able to drop off bulk deliveries of biodiesel. There is no delivery surcharge for deliveries of 200 liters or more. It is safe and legal to have barrels full of biodiesel on one's property. It is not explosive. (Try lighting your olive oil on fire.) Many of our members currently have this arrangement. The fuel is delivered on demand, or on a schedule (usually every 2, 4, or 6 weeks.) The co-op then bills members, who pay the co-op, not the delivery truck. 


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What about home heating? Can the co-op provide fuel for homes? 


Yes. Becoming a member gives one access to deliveries of home heating oil. The co-op has supplied many private residences with biodiesel for home heating. Contact the co-op for more information. 


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Is the co-op legal?


Yes. The co-op is a registered co-operative and pays all fuel, transit, and carbon taxes. The co-op has worked closely with municipal and provincial governments, as well as local police and fire departments, to ensure that our operations are safe, publicly known, and legal.  


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How does membership work? Why is there a cost? 

As with any co-operative, members must pay into the community. Our cost is $100, which is a one-time fee, and which can be recuperated if and one a member decides to leave the co-op.