Crittenden County, Ark., soybean farmers are putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak, spending several cents per gallon to burn a biodiesel blend containing soy oil in their tractors.
And they're working with local school districts and municipalities to encourage them to use biodiesel in their diesel-powered vehicles to improve fuel efficiency and air quality for school children and other local residents.
The effort is getting a push from officials in West Memphis and Marion, the two largest cities in Crittenden County, which, along with other cities and counties in the Memphis, Tenn., Metropolitan Statistical Area, recently were found to be in non-compliance with the Federal Clean Air Act.
“Currently, 90 percent to 95 percent of Crittenden County farmers are using a 2 percent to 5 percent biodiesel blend,” said Boyce Johnson, a soybean farmer and Crittenden County Farm Bureau president. “With 2.2 million gallons of fuel used since March, we estimate we've replaced 55,000 gallons of diesel with biodiesel.
“That's the equivalent of 37,000 bushels of soybeans, which may not seem like much, but if everyone will get on board and do a little bit, we believe all of us can eventually make a difference in these issues we face.”
Johnson was speaking at an air quality meeting at the Mid-South Community College campus in West Memphis, Ark. The meeting was attended by area farmers and representatives of school districts, city and county governments and the Memphis Area Transit Authority, which runs a fleet of 225 diesel-powered buses.
An emissions specialist with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and a contractor with the Arkansas Energy Office also participated.
Each 1 percent increase in the amount of biodiesel in a blend with petroleum-based diesel fuel adds about a cent per gallon to the cost of the fuel, according to Johnson. So farmers who used 2 percent biodiesel or B2 paid 2 cents more per gallon and those who bought a 5 percent blend 5 cents more.
“Several of our farmers would like to use a 20 percent blend or B20 biodiesel,” said Johnson, “but that additional 20 cents a gallon makes it difficult. If we can get Congress to pass the energy bill, the anticipated tax credits should make it more economical to burn B20.”
Biodiesel users may already enjoy some savings that aren't readily apparent, according to Maureen Rose, a contractor with the Arkansas Energy Office in the state's Department of Economic Development. Rose coordinates the Adopt-a-School-Bus Biodiesel Program in Arkansas.
“One of the school districts in our pilot program reported it received up to 20 percent higher miles per gallon, especially on older buses without fuel injection,” she said. “That's not based on a scientific study, but it's an interesting finding.”
Members of the audience said they've been seeing similar savings in their operations, primarily because of the increased engine “lubricity,” or slipperiness of the biodiesel blend.
“B2 is actually a great fuel additive,” said Gordon Petty with Ritter Oil Co., an east Arkansas fuel distributor who is providing biodiesel to farmers and school bus and government operations in Crittenden County. “You really don't need to add anything to the fuel to make it run better.”
Biodiesel does have a solvent effect that may release deposits accumulated on tank walls and pipes from previous diesel fuel storage. The release of deposits may clog filters initially, a problem that surfaced in the Adopt-a-School-Bus pilot program in central Arkansas. “Some of the school districts did report that fuel filters needed changing more frequently, but they are exploring other fuel filter options,” said the state Energy Office's Rose.
Other than the fuel filter problem, the school districts have not had to make any adjustments to the school bus engines to allow them to run on diesel. Finding biodiesel supplies in central Arkansas has been a problem at time.
Under the Adopt-a-School-Bus program, the Arkansas Energy Office provides matching funds from a U.S. Department of Energy grant to offset the added expense of purchasing biodiesel. Having participating school districts find sponsors for their half of the funds allows the state to spread its grant money over more districts.
Besides improving fuel efficiency, biodiesel could help reduce toxic contaminants found in the exhaust from burning petrol-diesel fuels. EPA has identified more than 40 chemicals in diesel exhaust that it considers toxic air contaminants.
“A child riding a school bus is exposed to as much as 46 times the cancer risk considered ‘significant’ by EPA,” said Rose. “Children are more susceptible to air emissions because they breath more rapidly and because of their smaller body size.”
Biodiesel can also reduce carbon monoxide and ozone-forming hydrocarbon emissions, two of the major contributors to the air quality problems currently being experienced in the eight counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee that make up the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area.
Crittenden County was in compliance with the federal government's Clean Air Act standards until 1997, when EPA lowered the minimum ozone guidelines from 120 parts per billion to 84 parts per billion.
“When EPA made those changes, it brought a lot of people into non-compliance,” said Eddie Brawley, Metropolitan Planning Organization chairman in Crittenden County. “In 2002, EPA ruled that if you were close to the minimum, you could enter into an early action compact that would give you until 2007 to get into compliance.
“But a new study showed that with all the improvements governments could do locally the minimum for this area would only drop to 86 parts per billion, and we would still be 2 points over the minimum. On April 15, EPA declared Crittenden and Shelby Counties in non-attainment status.”
Crittenden County, which gets most of its air contaminants from Memphis and Shelby County to the south and southeast, has been taking steps to reduce its own emissions by requiring vapor recovery systems on gasoline delivery trucks, limiting idling at truck stops by installing electrical outlets to provide heat and air conditioning into truck cabs and reducing volatile organic compounds by switching to alternative fuels.
“Using biodiesel is definitely one of the things we can do to help our situation,” said Brawley. “We have petitioned EPA to change our status to marginal, which would give us some relief.”
Johnson said he was proud of the action taken by farmers to help Crittenden County begin to improve its air quality.
“You take the reduction that we've seen in this county alone — in five months, farmers have displaced 55,000 gallons of diesel fuel with soybean oil,” he noted. “That's not huge, but we're talking one county and five months.”