BQ-9000: A Community-Scale Perspective

By Rachel Burton | July 15, 2011

In 2008, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published results from its third national biodiesel fuel quality survey. The results stated that “small producers failed the (ASTM) specifications more often than medium or large producers.” From an industry perspective, this was probably not surprising. Larger producers are generally better capitalized and have more extensive quality control laboratories.

At the same time this information was released, Piedmont Biofuels made a strategic decision to voluntarily implement a quality management system (QMS) at its central North Carolina production facility. With this NREL data published, Piedmont was inspired to demonstrate that smaller producers can consistently make a quality biodiesel product. During the past three years of system implementation, people often asked, “Has it been worth it? Has your investment in quality management paid off?”  If you talk to any staff member at Piedmont, you would hear a resounding “Yes!” 

So, how has the BQ-9000 program made a difference in our small biodiesel business? The initial implementation of the program was difficult; we had to make a cultural shift across the entire company. With time we were able to create a quality-aware employee culture. Issues related to fuel quality are announced and explained at the weekly staff meetings. Piedmont serves more than 450 individual consumers of biodiesel throughout the central North Carolina region. These retail customers became public advocates of the BQ-9000 standard. Our members know that our fuel is analyzed to the ASTM specifications every time and is a premium product.

With the quality management program in place, Piedmont witnessed new opportunities in the marketplace. When you are one of 30 some biodiesel plants listed on the BQ-9000 website, and one of only a handful in the Southeast, the phone will ring for product requests. The state of North Carolina also sees the value of the BQ-9000 accreditation program, and it is now a requirement to bid on state contract for biodiesel blends. The North Carolina state contract supplies all the school bus fleets and the NC Department of Transportation with biodiesel. NCDOT has been using biodiesel statewide since 2006, which is approximately 9 million gallons of B20. I think the most significant benefit for our participation in the program came last year during the lapse of the federal tax credit. At that time, many other producers opted to idle production without the economic tax incentive. Certain market opportunities allowed us to continue production at reasonable economics, and we give credit to our BQ-9000 accreditation for opening these doors.

Other small or community-scale producers often ask how much it cost to go BQ-9000. There is an initial investment with membership and auditor fees as part of the registration process. The other investments are time and personnel. It is critical to have the personnel to create and maintain the quality management program. Training for other key staff involved in the product chain should be included. Next, if a producer does not have in-house laboratory capabilities, there can be expenses for third-party testing or the purchase of new equipment. Initially, it may be difficult to justify the investment for this type of technical capabilities. If you are serious about bringing biodiesel to the market, fuel quality has to be at the forefront of your operation. At Piedmont, we are now reaping some of the multiyear benefits of the quality management investment. With a solid documentation program in place, our team can easily evaluate long-term production trends that enhance both process evaluation and opportunities for improvement. Even a small producer can sign up as a member of ASTM and AOCS, participating in their inter-laboratory cross-check program. One can gain access to the technical developments maintaining biodiesel’s status as an advanced biofuel. The BQ-9000 program helped Piedmont achieve its goal: making a quality biodiesel fuel on the community-scale.

Author: Rachel Burton
Research Director, Piedmont Biofuels
(919) 321-8260

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