B99 biodiesel well runs dry in Twin Citiesby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
Drivers of diesel vehicles in the Twin Cities trying to buy the purest of biodiesel fuels have run out of easy options.
All diesel sold in Minnesota must contain at least 2% biodiesel, which is usually made from any number of vegetable oils or feed stock. Last year, though, two gas stations sold fuel called B-99, which contained 99% soybean oil. But higher soybean prices since then have dried up their supply and forced them to go back to selling the usual 2% blend.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Amcon station on Highway 3 in Northfield doesn't really stand out from other stations. But owner Jim Johnson is trying to be as green a gas station owner as possible.
The lights in the bathrooms have motion sensors to save energy; the carwash uses environmentally-friendly soaps; and for a few months last summer, customers could buy B-99 biodiesel fuel, a mix of nearly pure soybean oil at the same price as regular diesel.
"If they were selling it for $3.50, I sold it for $3.50," Johnson said. "If it was $2.20, I sold it $2.20. We were never higher, I tried to stay even, even a little lower to get people introduced to it.
"It wasn't going to be a profit center for me."
Now, a year later, the motion sensors and soaps are still there, but not the B-99.
Johnson said a few things went awry over the winter. For one, a number of his filters clogged when the soybean oil gummed up in the cold. But just as importantly, the price of soybean oil jumped.
The same biodiesel fuel that Johnson could sell last year for about the same price as regular diesel would be off the charts this year.
"They don't even price it to me when I get my prices from my five suppliers up in the metro area," he said. "It's kind of like when you order a lobster at a supper club. It says 'whatever the price will bear," kind of a market price deal."
One reason for higher soybean prices is a tighter supply. Farmers have planted fewer soybeans and more corn in recent years. Demand and prices for corn are up because corn helps make that other alternative fuel, ethanol.
But even willing sellers, at least in the Twin Cites, are having trouble locating a supply of B-99 biodiesel.
Tim Teachout owns T&T automotive in Richfield, which sold B-99 last year.
"We've always been kind of the neighborhood gas station," he explains. "We're not affiliated with the big oil companies."
His supply of B-99 last year came from a plant that no longer makes the fuel due to those high soybean prices.
"I'd be more than happy to be doing the B-99 again," Teachout said. "The people seemed to like it. It's a good, green alternative. I had quite a few people who would would tell me they'd go out of their way to get the B-99 last year."
But Teachout's suppliers have told him the closest B-99 is in South Dakota, which would add big costs just to send a truck there to retrieve it. And just that trip is costlier this year for truckers because those tankers run on diesel.
"People who've been loyal biodiesel users last year all say the same thing: We'll pay a nickel, 10 cents more, but we're not interested in 50 cents more, and I can't say I blame them," Teachout said.
Teachout was selling regular diesel last week for $4.84 a gallon; B-99, he guesses, would be at least $5.70. The lack of B-99 is frustrating for some customers who want to do the green thing.
Michael Weber of Bloomington bought a diesel car two years ago for efficiency. His last car got 21 miles per gallon. He now gets 42, and he was excited for biodiesel.
"I knew fuel prices would keep rising, I expected that" he said, in an interview. "And I suspect they'll keep rising from here. But I thought biodiesel would somehow mitigate the cost of diesel but it's just the opposite.
"Biodiesel is rising faster than diesel."
Weber is now fed up with all combustible engines and plans to be in line whenever electric cars go on sale in the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, people like Emily Whebbe are trying to keep the word out among suppliers and stations about biodiesel. She works for Sundays Energy, a co-op that helps businesses trying to go green.
Whebbe used B-99 in her red Volkswagon and even tried to make her own batch at home when the supply started drying up, but now she's using the regular 2% blend. If there is a gas station in the Twin Cities that sells B-99, she's not aware of it and she's been looking non-stop.
"I don't think it's the death," she said. "I think it's just a hurdle to get over - one of many hurdles we have to get over in biodiesel."
Biodiesel's biggest advocates say the alternative fuel still has a bright future in Minnesota.
It was the first state, after all, to require diesel fuel to contain 2% biodiesel. And a new law passed this spring will up that to 5% next year and 20% by 2015.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, sponsored the biodiesel bill.
"Over the next few years you will build that [infrastructure] and you don't have to transport that product to California or the East Coast," he said. "You can sell it here in Minnesota; that saves that transportation costs and makes your alternative biodiesel product more competitive right away, right out of the plant."
Juhnke says biodiesel was broadly defined in the law because it doesn't just come from soybeans. Other oils are used to make biodiesel. And not just oils: For example, researchers are trying to make biodiesel out of algae.
And a paper mill in Wisconsin just got a $30 million federal grant to try to make fuel out of the leftovers from the paper-making process.
As for that truly pure blend, the B-99 that Jim Johnson and Tim Teachout sold last year, they say it's getting too late in the year to even try to re-stock the product. Any desire they have to bring it back might have to wait through another Minnesota winter.
- Morning Edition, 07/21/2008, 6:50 a.m.