Ohio metro transit systems utilize high biodiesel blends

By | September 01, 2006
Three Ohio metro transit authorities have made the switch to biodiesel blends, ranging from B20 to B90. Though each authority had different motives and a different method, they all indicated that biodiesel's positive effects on maintenance and fuel expenses could ensure the fuel's long-term use.

This summer, two transit authorities that serve the metro areas of Columbus and Cincinnatti, used blends as high as B90 and B75, respectively. After Hurricane Katrina, quality diesel became scarce, leading both groups to search for a dependable alternative. The $1-per-gallon blender's tax credit allowed them to use biodiesel at a cost equal to or lower than the cost of low-sulfur diesel. They also ensured supply and cost stability by securing long-term contracts for biodiesel from local producer Peter Cremer North America (PCNA).

Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which has a 390-bus fleet that serves 22 million riders per year in the Cincinnati metro area, first used B30 in 1993. "Cost was the only reason that kept us from running biodiesel," said Chief Communications Officer Sallie Hilvers, of the $4-per-gallon rate. Today, Hilvers said the price is comparable to petroleum diesel. SORTA used blends up to B75 this summer but will eventually go with a standard B50 blend in the summer and B20 in the winter. SORTA uses 3.6 million gallons of diesel per year, and has contracted with PCNA for 1.3 million gallons next year.

After seeing SORTA use very high biodiesel blends without incident, the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) followed suit. COTA averages 15 million rides per year on its 234 buses in the Columbus metro area. Don Makarius, director of vehicle maintenance and engineering, developed a blend strategy based on the area's mean temperatures. In the winter, it will use B20; B50 will be used in the fall and spring, and B90 will be used in the summer. This rate means that biodiesel will make up 54 percent of fuel consumed, or 1.2 million gallons, according to Makarius.

COTA had maintenance issues with the injectors, which may have been due to the change in fuel density, Makarius said. To study this and other issues regarding biodiesel use in a transit fleet, COTA is collaborating with a team from The Ohio State University, as well as the National Transportation Research Board on a similar study. COTA is also doing an in-house study to extend oil changes. "I think we can reduce operating costs by reducing the amount of times we change oil and use our labor elsewhere," Makarius said. He predicted that big savings would be evident compared to ultra-low-sulfur diesel, which will cost an additional 20 cents per gallon over low-sulfur diesel.

The third transit authority, Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, is halfway through the first year of its three-year testing program, which Biodiesel Magazine first reported on in April ("A Real Biodiesel Insider", April 2006). It is in the process of measuring biodiesel's long-term effect on maintenance costs.
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