Biodiesel is clearly a win for the planet—using it results in 52% fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, 41% fewer than diesel, and 41% fewer than the much-touted corn ethanol when it’s made from soybeans. But some people wonder whether a massive switch to biodiesel would be sustainable: would it use up food crops and drive up grain prices? Would it result in countries clearcutting critical habitat to grow more feedstock for fuel?
These are valid concerns, but the good news is, unlike with corn ethanol, there are ways to produce biodiesel that benefit both communities and the environment. To make sure that’s the path we as a nation choose, several diverse groups have come together to form the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance (SBA).
“Because the biodiesel industry is still relatively small, we have a chance to do it right and move forward in ways that could make it renewable and sustainable,” says Heidi Quante, SBA’s director. “There’s no reason to recreate the problems we’ve had with petroleum.”
SBA was founded in December 2006 by film star Darryl Hannah, Pacific Biodiesel's Kelly King, and Annie Nelson, whose husband, country musician Willie Nelson, is also an outspoken advocate of biodiesel. The three women brought together biodiesel producers that were community-owned and –operated, and looking for ways to make their fuel as sustainable as possible. They also invited several nonprofits concerned about sustainable transportation and family farmers, like the IATP and Farm Aid, as well as university scientists and other industry experts, to the table.
What the groups all had in common was that they all wanted to see the creation of a community-based biodiesel infrastructure that benefits farmers, stewards the Earth, and brings the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of biodiesel to the lowest levels possible.
A Multi-Stakeholder Process
The various players involved in the SBA are working on creating a consensus around a list of best practices for producing and purchasing biodiesel. These best practices, which the SBA plans to unveil this September, focus on keeping biodiesel environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.
For example, Quante says, some language will probably go into the list to ensure that:
• from an environmental perspective, critical habitat isn’t clearcut for biodiesel crops, and that waste is used for making biodiesel as much as possible.
• from a social perspective, that small-scale or subsistence farmers in developing countries aren’t forced off their lands to increase biodiesel production, as has reportedly been happening in Colombia.
• and from an economic persective, that urban and rural communities benefit as much as possible from the biodiesel energy future, such as by having community-owned production facilities and locally produced feedstocks when possible.
In an effort to ensure that biodiesel is sustainable from as many perspectives as possible, the SBA has gone beyond its membership to bring a multitude of stakeholders into working groups. The various working groups mirror the lifecycle of biodiesel, focusing on growing feedstock, plant processing, and distribution.
Green America business member Organic Valley, a cooperative of US organic, family farmers that sells organic food, is part of the growing feedstock and plant processing working groups.
“We’re really interested in the sustainable agriculture part of it,” says Organic Valley’s Cecil Wright. “We like to see crop diversity, not monocropping, as well as organic or close-to-organic production. We want to make sure that the biodiesel is as good as it can be for family farmers and the environment, over its entire lifecycle.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the US Navy—currently one of the largest users of biodiesel in the US—is also participating in the SBA working groups.
“They want to see a domestic biodiesel industry, for national security reasons,” says Quante.
Once the best practices are in place, the SBA plans to come out with a Sustainable Biodiesel seal in 2008, which consumers could look for to determine whether their biodiesel was grown and produced in ways that benefit people and the planet. The seal will be modeled on other third-party industry certifications, like the Forest Stewardship Council FSC mark.
Looking at Feedstocks
One of the major questions the SBA and its working groups have been tackling is which feedstocks make the best biodiesel for people and the planet.
“We’re finding that that differs from region to region,” says Quante. “For example, sunflowers aren't optimal crops for every region in the US, but they make a high-yield biodiesel crop that’s more efficient than soy. So while one region may want to grow sunflowers, another might grow mustard or camelina.
And, of course, the SBA is big on using as much waste as possible to make biodiesel.
“Waste has such an amazing place in biodiesel,” says Quante. “One of the problems is that waste grease can cause problems in municipal water systems. By using waste oil for biodiesel, you help avoid a problem for many large urban cities. Also, urban communities can benefit from production, as waste oil becomes a type of ‘urban crop.’”
Quante cites Fryodiesel, a for-profit biodiesel producer in Philadelphia, as an example. The company is part of the SBA’s best practices working group for producers and purchasers. Using its own patented process, Fryodiesel makes a high-quality biodiesel from waste grease it collects from local restaurants.
Not only does Fryodiesel sell this fuel to customers across the state, but it also makes an effort to get it in the hands of Pennsylvania school districts, as part of a statewide effort to convert the state’s school buses to biodiesel.
“The majority of school buses run on diesel, and they’re incredibly polluting,” says Nadia Adawi, Fryodiesel’s president. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that diesel exhaust has been linked to asthma, heart disease, and cancer, and several studies have found that diesel pollution can concentrate inside the buses, where children breathe it in.
“Besides the air quality issues, one of the reasons we try to sell to school districts is that they can get grant money from the state to cover any incremental costs associated with a switch to biodiesel,” says Adawi.
So with Fryodiesel’s help, local schoolbuses in one district have converted to biodiesel that’s very sustainable: It’s made from waste grease, it’s produced in a community-owned, local facility, and it’s less polluting than diesel and so less of a danger to the children in the buses. The company hopes to help more districts convert in the future.
Efficiency First, Then Biodiesel
While the SBA remains focused on making biodiesel as sustainable as possible, Quante notes that their efforts will be in vain if we don’t increase the fuel efficiency of our cars, so we need less fuel, including biodiesel, in the first place.
“Biodiesel is by no means a silver bullet,” says Quante. “We need to look at improving fuel economy and improving our public transportation systems, so we use much less fuel.”
She points to a 2006 WorldWatch report, Biofuels for Transportation, which states that “advanced biofuels could provide 37 percent of US transport fuel within the next 25 years, and up to 75 percent if automobile fuel economy doubles.”
For now, she encourages consumers to take steps in their own lives to use less fuel, and advocate for more public transportation and improved fuel economy overall.
For those of us who want to jump on the biodiesel train before SBA certification comes online, Quante encourages us to ask questions when we purchase it, such as: What feedstock do you use? Is it waste or virgin? Where is your feedstock coming from? Is it domestic or imported?
Also, she says, you can ask about ASTM certification, which is a standard set by the American Society for Testing and Materials to ensure that the biodiesel meets a certain fuel quality. Note that some local cooperatives may not have ASTM certification, because it can be costly.
“If we want a sustainable future, it’s up to each individual to act,” says Quante. “We need to ask questions about what’s being posed as a solution to our current energy structure, and we need to get behind the best options.”