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Are those UCSC Biodiesel Buses really running on Biodiesel?
by Ike Solem
Tuesday Aug 29th, 2006 4:31 PM
The University of California, Santa Cruz, has been claiming that it runs all campus buses on biodiesel, yet is unable to provide any evidence of this long-standing claim. Is it engaged in "Greenwashing"?
For several years, the University of California, Santa Cruz has been claiming that all buses and diesel machinery operated by the University have been fueled with biodiesel. However, the university has been unable to provide this reporter with the name of a biodiesel source after numerous requests. None of the local biodiesel suppliers I contacted are doing any business with the university, and a number of confidential sources report that the fleet is entirely fueled by fossil fuel diesel, in spite of the ‘fueled by biodiesel’ stickers on the backs of many fleet buses. Neither the Fleet Manager nor the chair of TAPS (Transportation and Parking Services) would answer any questions, but referred all inquiries to Liz Irwin, Public Information Officer for the university, who has yet to answer my information requests.

Biodiesel is a diesel fuel replacement made from vegetable oils or waste grease. The other key ingredient is methanol or ethanol. The final product is less goopy and viscous than pure vegetable oil (which can also be used in a warmed-up diesel engine) and is cleaner burning than diesel fuel. It is currently manufactured to a standardized technical grade, and can be used in a blend with diesel fuel or by itself.

The Diesel engine was invented by Rudolph Diesel (1858-1913), and was designed to run on vegetable oils. He patented his invention on February 27, 1982. Diesel engines have no spark plugs, but operate on the principle of thermal compression of the fuel, which then causes the fuel to ignite. This phenomenon is also responsible for ‘engine knock’ in gasoline engines. The first demonstration of this engine utilized peanut oil as the fuel. Another biofuel, ethanol, has a very high octane number and can serve as a replacement fuel in gasoline engines (A high-octane fuel can stand more compression before igniting than a low-octane fuel).

Fossil diesel fuel contains a wide variety of hydrocarbon compounds as well as sulfur, and the combustion products (sulfur, particulates, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon residues) can cause health problems. New California regulations specify that diesel fuel must have ultra-low levels of sulfur, but this has caused some engine problems due to low lubricity; biodiesel mediates this problem and as a result it is a popular additive to diesel fuels. Biodiesel will soon be sold at a number of local gas stations, and Pajaro Valley School district is moving to use biodiesel to fuel their school buses, as reported by Michael Thomas in the August 22 edition of the Mid-County Post.

The emerging markets in biofuels were shut down in the early twentieth century as petroleum exploration and production boomed and fossil fuel prices decreased. Prohibition helped to ensure that ‘farm ethanol’ would not challenge gasoline sales, and the invention of tetra-ethyl lead as an additive to gasoline eliminated the need to mix ethanol with gasoline to increase the octane number and prevent engine knock. The oil embargoes and crises of the 1970’s caused many countries to re-initiate biofuel programs. Germany in particular has made major investments in this area, and they were the first to produce biodiesel in large quantities. Currently about 5% of diesel fuel in Germany is biodiesel (usually blended in with diesel fuel), and Germany may mandate a 5.75% biodiesel content in all diesel fuels.

Biofuels are now undergoing a resurgence for a number of reasons, including their beneficial effect on climate change (which is due to the net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions). Plants produce the raw materials for biofuel production from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so there can be no net increase in carbon dioxide emissions as a result of using biofuels – but only if sustainable agriculture practices are used. Biofuels provide a way to utilize waste grease from restaurants, which can be difficult to dispose of in landfills. Farmers are also viewing biofuels as a new emerging market for their agricultural products.

Using biodiesel in University buses and machinery would have a number of environmental benefits, including reducing pollution and mitigating climate change. The fledgling local biodisel industry would also be greatly aided if they knew they had a guaranteed market for their product.

If the University is claiming to be using biodiesel while actually using imported diesel, then it raises the questions of the veracity of University statements as well as their commitment to the local economy and to healthy environmental practices. The University has repeatedly claimed that it is a great boon to local businesses, and a switch to biodiesel would certainly benefit local businesses, assuming a local contract was worked out.

The University has repeatedly claimed that it is using a biodiesel blend in all campus buses. The May 08 version of UCSC Currents Online contains an article by Jennifer McNulty, “UCSC Students Lead the Greening of the University”, which states that “Diesel-powered campus shuttles run on a fuel that's 20 percent biodiesel.” The university has been claiming to be using biodiesel since at least July of 2004, as evidenced by the July 12, 2004 article in UCSC Currents Online, “July 12, 2004, UCSC Fleet Services Honored for Environmental Efforts”, as well as by the minutes from the Jan 14, 2004 Transportation Advisory Committee Meeting: “Mr. Scott said that TAPS currently runs all of the campus heavy-duty fleet on biodiesel fuel. It does not require any vehicle modifications.”

The inability of the University to name a biodiesel supplier, as well as the reports of my confidential sources, indicate that this is not true. Was biodiesel ever used by the University, and if so, when was its use ended?

This does raise the question: Is the University ‘greening’ itself, or is it ‘greenwashing’ itself?
LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Listed below are the latest comments about this post.
These comments are submitted anonymously by website visitors.
TITLE AUTHOR DATE
Different herb highs could be different marijuanaluciWednesday Sep 6th, 2006 10:30 PM
rules, lawscpWednesday Sep 6th, 2006 8:15 PM
Not designed for vegjdubTuesday Sep 5th, 2006 3:55 AM
more on the biodiesel/ethanol topicIke SolemFriday Sep 1st, 2006 12:38 PM
published?AlumniFriday Sep 1st, 2006 11:51 AM
Slight technical correction...Kelly O'BrienFriday Sep 1st, 2006 11:11 AM
it sounds like greenwashing to me, alsosniffyThursday Aug 31st, 2006 2:50 PM
cost comparisonc831Thursday Aug 31st, 2006 12:33 PM
oops, and yes, the buses stinkIke SolemWednesday Aug 30th, 2006 3:13 PM
Get noseysniffyTuesday Aug 29th, 2006 9:33 PM
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