USDA recently announced it will heat at least one of its Washington, D.C.-area offices with biodiesel fuel this winter. Department of Agriculture employees at the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md., will stay warm this winter using soybean-based heating fuel, Agricultural Research Service Administrator Floyd Horn announced.

The research center and two dairy barns located at the site will be heated with a "B5" biodiesel blend: 5-percent soy-based biodiesel and 95-percent heating oil.

"Since we began using biodiesel in August 1999, 40 large vehicle fleets across the country have done likewise. Now, we are taking the lead in introducing the country to heating with biodiesel, as Europeans already do," he says.

"This would help reduce the potential home heating oil crisis facing us this winter and reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil," Horn said.

John Van de Vaarst, ARS deputy area director, says that biodiesel is working at least as well as regular diesel fuel in the vehicles. "Plus, it is cleaner-burning and is better for the environment. It also may be keeping the vehicles' engines cleaner, lowering maintenance costs."

"We chose a B5 blend for heating to reduce potential clogging of the boiler fuel filters and strainers with sludge which has settled in the storage tank over the years. Biodiesel has excellent solvent properties that clean the tank and accessories. But, a higher blend could cause clogging," Van de Vaarst says.

Higher concentrations - up to 100 percent biodiesel - can be used for both residential and industrial heating, although B5 to B20 blends are more likely to be used widely, at least initially.

Van de Vaarst says that biodiesel costs more than regular diesel, but the difference in price has narrowed considerably in the past year, as diesel oil prices have risen. "Today, B20 costs about 25 cents a gallon more than regular diesel and B5 costs about a nickel a gallon more, " Van de Vaarst says.