Biodiesel Blossoms in the Sunshine State

Florida has a bustling biodiesel industry and a number of major companies have made strong commitments to use the renewable fuel. Three of those companies were featured presenters and were recognized for their use and promotion of biodiesel at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Florida. Photos and story by Jerry Kram.
By Jerry W. Kram | March 17, 2008
Florida conjures up thousands of contrasting images: the white sand beaches of Daytona and the sea of grass called the Everglades; Miami's glittering night life and alligators in back yards; explorers headed to space delicately balanced on a lance of fire, and children thrilled to meet a certain movie mouse or web-spinning superhero. Yet another image was showcased at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Orlando, Fla., one where major players are striving to make biodiesel an important part of the energy equation in one of the fastest growing states in the nation.

Every year, large biodiesel consumers in Florida use hundreds of thousands of gallons of the renewable fuel. Three of them-Florida Power & Light Co., NASA and Universal Studios Theme Park-made presentations based on their experiences at the conference in February. Each of these organizations has made a major commitment to using alternative energy resources and have made biodiesel an important part of their energy equation. "Each one of these organizations has national and international impact and are recognized for their leadership," said Tom Verry, director of outreach for the NBB. "In promoting biodiesel for 17 years, I could never dream of a day like this. Florida is a prime biodiesel producing state and has been a leader in this area."

Let There Be Light
Millions of people live in Florida and the state hosts millions more visitors every year. At night, the region glows with the lights of hundreds of attractions as diverse as Epcot and the Hard Rock Café. The rainbow of neon that is Florida takes a lot of energy to maintain, and biodiesel plays a key role in keeping the lights on, said George Survant, director of fleet services for FP&L. The company started using biodiesel in 1999 and now uses more than 2 million gallons a year. "I run about 1,200 medium-duty trucks in the 27,000 to 33,000 pound weight class," Survant said. "We probably have another 700 smaller trucks that are diesel powered expressly because we can use biodiesel in them."

Survant said his company has always maintained a close working relationship with its biodiesel suppliers in northern Florida. FP&L has always tried to create what Survant called a quality partnership with its suppliers and so has never experienced the quality problems with biodiesel that tend to get reported in the media. In fact, the main problem for FP&L is finding enough biodiesel. "As you might imagine we have had supply difficulties," he said. "Until the recent popularity of biodiesel we actually had a price advantage over diesel fuel, but I'm afraid that has gone the way of the dinosaur. But we expect the supply and demand curve to settle out and prices will normalize over time."

The biggest advantage for FP&L is how much cleaner biodiesel is compared with petroleum diesel. "Our engines are cleaner," Survant said. "Our emissions are cleaner. It has been so long since I have had a complaint about the exhaust fumes from one of our trucks in a residential area, I can't even tell you when it was." Cleaner vehicles are important to FP&L because they need to go everywhere electricity is used. "We may be next to the hospital or in the driveway beside your house," he said. "We are a first responder to ensure that our customers' lights are on. We are everywhere and we are a high-profile fleet."

Biodiesel has not only been a solid environmental choice for FP&L but also a good economic decision. Until recently, the company paid less for biodiesel than for petroleum diesel, a savings for the customers and the company. "We have to make good solid decisions for our customers for good reliable fuel choices and good reliable truck choices," Survant said. "We also have to make solid economic decisions both for our customers and our shareholders. Biodiesel has been a win-win experience across the board."

FP&L has long been a leader in incorporating alternative fuels into its operation a fact recognized by the NBB, which presented the company with its Eye on Biodiesel Initiative Award.

Biodiesel is not only contributing to the company's environmental goals in the present but will continue to play a large role in the future as well. Continued reliance on fuel sources from unstable parts of the world is not in the best long-term interests of his industry, Survant said. Using biodiesel also supports the Florida economy. "There are so many reasons that [using biodiesel] is the right thing to do at the right time." he added. "We are pleased to be afforded an opportunity to be a leader in this field. The fuel we buy is from north Florida and the soybeans are locally grown. Everything about the program gives our community relations folks a big reason to smile."

To Boldly Go
Florida is home to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, where spacecraft to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond all began their epic journeys. NASA maintains more earthly concerns as well. That's why the agency began fueling its 144 diesel-powered vehicles exclusively on B20 in 2003, said Bruce Chesson, alternative fuels coordinator with NASA transportation. Since then, NASA has used more than 276,000 gallons of the fuel. In recognition of its commitment to using biodiesel, the NBB awarded NASA its annual Pioneer Award.

Chesson said the most extraordinary thing about the space agency's conversion to biodiesel was how uneventful it has been. "It was pretty much the easiest switchover to any alternative fuel we could use," he said. "We cleaned out the tanks, put biodiesel stickers on, filled up with biodiesel and started dispensing the fuel from our station."

The NASA fleet is leased by the General Services Administration and includes 43 buses. These are full-sized tour buses as well as smaller shuttles that carry NASA personnel between various industrial areas of Cape Kennedy. Other biodiesel-fueled equipment includes the tractors that move large pieces of equipment to and from the pads prior to a launch.

Cape Kennedy isn't the only part of NASA fueled by alternatives. The space administration has labs and facilities from California to Iowa to Maryland. "All of our centers are trying to operate on alternative fuels as much as possible," Chesson said.

Biodiesel-Powered Movie Magic
The ominous two-note theme pounds, suddenly a huge shark rises from the water, the sun glistens off hundreds of razor-sharp teeth. That's the experience visitor's thrill to every day at the Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, and one that is powered by biodiesel. The tour boats that ferry tourists through the "Jaws" attraction at the park are being converted to run on biodiesel. Each boat will use two diesel motors, one for propulsion and the other to run a generator for electrical power.

Since March 2007, every diesel engine at the park has run on biodiesel, said David Winslow, director of engineering and environment sustainability technical services for Universal Orlando Resort. All of the park's water taxis and its ground fleet of more than 50 vehicles are already running on B20.

Winslow said he took direction from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson who said that when it comes to biofuels, decision makers need to say "yes we can" instead of "no we can't." "That was so true," Winslow said. "It took us a year of trying to convince all the departments of Universal that it was OK to use biodiesel. Every step along the way it was 'no because of warranties' or 'no because we don't know what the emission issues are' or 'no because we don't know about tank compatibility.' Finally I have to give credit to my direct supervisor who said, 'yes if this is the right thing to do for the environment then this is the right thing to do for Universal Orlando, the city of Orlando and the state of Florida.'" The next fuel truck to show up after that conversation was filled with biodiesel, Winslow said.

One of the opportunities that Universal offers the biodiesel industry is that it uses an incredible range of equipment. From trucks to buses to stationary engines, the facility makes use of just about every type and size of diesel engine from a dozen different manufacturers. The park also keeps meticulous records of the service and maintenance done on those engines, so the company will be able to determine if there are any maintenance issues related to biodiesel. So far, there have been no issues related to the fuel. "We are a 24/7/365 [day] operation," Winslow said. "We run our equipment all the time. We put a lot of hours on that equipment very quickly."

The resort uses about 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year. Winslow estimates that using B20 has reduced emissions of carbon dioxide by 158 tons per year. "That's about the equivalent of taking 26 cars off the road," he said. "That's a step in the right direction."

Biodiesel has a bright and expanding future at the Universal Orlando theme park. The company's water taxis are being converted from outboard motors to inboard motors from Volkswagen, which will be the first engines at the resort certified to use biodiesel blends higher than B20. Winslow said they will use B20 to start with and after a shakedown period they will start using B50. The engines are certified to use B100, and could eventually be running on pure biodiesel. Half of the boats are scheduled to be converted this year and the other half in 2009. The conversion will increase the park's use of biodiesel by 50 percent.

The one disappointment Winslow expressed is that he personally wants to use alternative fuels, but there are currently no retail biodiesel or E85 ethanol stations between Daytona on the Atlantic Coast and Tampa on the Gulf Coast. "My request to the community is that we get more retail stations out there," he said.

Jerry W. Kram is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at jkram@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 738-4962.
 
 
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