Biodiesel on a Stick

Step right up and take a ride on the biodiesel-powered Ferris wheel! That's right folks, 350 million annual carnival-goers now have the opportunity to experience the power of biodiesel!
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | January 24, 2007
The aroma of something on a stick sizzling in hot cooking oil wafts across the midway at every county fair and carnival. It's a sensory experience as synonymous with carnivals as barking carnies, merry-go-rounds and games of chance. At some fairs last year, the aroma of fry oil wasn't coming just from the fried foods but also from the generators used to power the midway.

Biodiesel blends, which many people say smell like French fries, were used by only a handful of carnival companies in 2006, as biodiesel has yet to gain the fame it enjoys as a transportation fuel. Similar to the heating oil industry, however, the carnival industry is a niche market ripe for biodiesel infusion. According to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA), approximately 500 carnivals travel the United States each year, ranging in size from one or two rides to more than 100 rides. All of these carnivals use diesel in nearly every aspect of the business.

"The average carnival will spend $60,000 to $80,000 per year on fuel-with large carnivals spending up to $150,000 for 60 to 80 rides," says OABA President Bob Johnson. That money is used to fuel the trucks that haul the equipment, which are on the road one or two times per week, and for the generators that power the carnival rides. This doesn't include the amount individual vendors spend to fuel the generators that power their living quarters as they travel.

If 500 carnivals spent an average of $60,000 on diesel fuel annually, the carnival industry as a whole would spend $30 million on diesel fuel, both on- and off-road. That would amount to more than 10 million gallons consumed annually.

Even the small carnival companies are big diesel consumers. McDonagh's Amusements Inc. of Chesaning, Mich., runs 25 to 30 shows featuring 20 to 25 rides per event from May to October. Kelly McDonagh says each of the rides require two generators with 500-gallon tanks, as well as a large generator with a 1,000-gallon tank. In one week, they consume "a couple thousand" gallons of off-road diesel fuel, she says.

Another carnival company, Elliott's Amusements LLC of Mason, Mich., is considered a small- to medium-sized carnival. In one week-or one fair-the company's 350-kilowatt generators will power through 900 gallons of off-road diesel. This is repeated 25 times per year as Elliott's Amusements conducts shows from April through the end of November.

Carnival leaders recognize the potential and need for biodiesel, but also acknowledge that the industry has a long way to go. "Issues with diesel fuel costs and low-sulfur diesel fuels have challenged our industry to seek more cost-efficient, cleaner-burning fuels," Johnson says. "Biodiesel is being looked at, but we're certainly not leading the way."

Partnerships and Promotions
Although it isn't the fuel of choice for the industry, biodiesel has become a preference for some carnival owners. "Our industry consumes a lot of fuel, and it should be biodiesel," says Debbie Elliott, co-owner of Elliott's Amusements. Her company is seeking to increase the use of biodiesel amongst its peers, and is leading the way in Michigan. "Generators are the heartbeat of our business," Elliott says. "If you're in the middle of a county fair and your generator goes down, you're out of business. If there's something that's going to help your generator, you're going to explore those options for sure."

Elliott tells Biodiesel Magazine that she and her husband Tracy started using biodiesel about one and half years ago. "We got interested in it because the cost of diesel was going through the roof," she says. "We use so much off-road for generators and on-road for trucks-there's got to be a better way." She also expressed a concern over unstable prices caused by the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Elliott contacted Gail Frahm, executive director of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, to see how the fuel could be promoted. The committee approved a one-time grant project themed, "Ride into the future with soy biodiesel." The amusement companies were required to use B20 in the generators that powered the rides and in the semi tractors that haul the rides between events. Elliott's Amusements and McDonagh's Amusements participated in the project.

In return, the participating companies were eligible for up to $11,500 in benefits, according to Frahm. Companies could get reimbursed for one-half of any added cost for soy biodiesel resulting from the use of a B20 blend or higher. The reimbursement was allocated up to $5,000 for any overage in cost. The companies were also eligible for up to $3,250 for promotional items, including literature, press releases, signage, displays and banners, and another $3,250 for other advertising, such as posters and radio spots.

Though each company was eligible for up to $11,500, Frahm says the difference between using B20 or conventional diesel fuel ended up being less than a couple hundred dollars throughout the entire season. "Over the course of the entire summer, the cost difference for us was a $132 increase," Elliott says. "The price of regular diesel had gone up so much that the biodiesel cost less or people were giving it to us for the same price."

McDonagh's Amusements used B20, and in the warmer part of the summer it used B50. McDonagh says the cost difference between biodiesel and petroleum diesel varied. "It all costs way too much," she laughs, but reports that the company was reimbursed for a $180 difference.

McDonagh's Amusements started using biodiesel blends because of the promotion, and are now using it in the generators and forklifts. "We were pleased, especially with the emissions part," McDonagh says. "We didn't have all that black smoke coming out of our generators, which sometimes have to be in the middle of the midway."

Both companies were satisfied with their biodiesel experiences, and they plan to use B20 and B50 again this year. "We fully intend to go to at least B50 this year," Elliott says. "We see no reason not to."

Frahm says the incentive program will continue. "There was not a whole lot of cash outlaid to make a big splash with in-state amusement companies," she says. "For the dollars that were extended, it was worthwhile." The committee reduced the project cost in promotions by collaborating with local organizations, such as the Michigan Farm Bureau, on joint press releases and advertisements, she says.

For McDonagh's Amusements, the advertising was a great bonus. "The advertising is always helpful," McDonagh says. "If they do it again, I'm sure we'll take advantage of it."

Industry and Community Outreach
McDonagh notes that the setup was also beneficial to biodiesel promoters to get their names and information out to fair attendees. Such collaboration provided promotional as well as educational opportunities at fairs throughout the summer. "It worked out really well when the Farm Bureau had a booth about biodiesel and McDonagh's Amusements had biodiesel signs," Frahm says.

Carnivals, in general, offer a tremendous public relations opportunity that extends well beyond the carnival companies. The OABA estimates that 350 million people visit a carnival each year. "We're very interested in biodiesel and very interested in having information available to the public that come to fairs," says Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. "We think it's a great opportunity to provide agriculture education."

Elliott agrees. "One of the beautiful things about what we did this summer is that in the carnival business, we play county fairs," she says. "Farmers grow soybeans for the biodiesel, and we're promoting their product to them. Here we are using their biodiesel. It all went hand in hand."

Frahm says Elliott's Amusements was the real driver in promoting biodiesel to other amusement companies. Last year, Elliott coordinated a workshop on biodiesel that was held at the annual convention of the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions in January. In its convention report, the association singled out the workshop as "especially well-attended," with more than 80 attendees. Among those hosting the workshop were Elliott, Frahm, Kim Hahrle of local fuel supplier Wacker Oil, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Internal outreach, such as these workshops, are a great way to reach new markets, Frahm says. "There's a lot of opportunity out there, especially with the positive public relations that got out there from the companies this summer," she says. "There's a lot of interest, and I hope that what was done this summer will expand." A follow-up biodiesel workshop will be held at the 2007 convention in February.

Perhaps one of the best ways to reach such a niche market is through local fuel suppliers. "Some carnivals have been at county fairs for over 70 years," OABA's Johnson says. "They have contracts and contacts with local fuel suppliers who fuel their generators and trucks." Both McDonagh and Elliott say they had to request the blended fuel from their suppliers around the state. "They didn't come to us-it was definitely our request," McDonagh says, adding that her company never had any problems obtaining biodiesel.

"A lot of them had it, but they didn't have much experience with it," Elliott says. Those that did have experience were quick to help her in her research efforts, however. "I got a good portion of my information from Wacker Fuels of Manchester, Mich.," she says. "They are extremely knowledgeable and are just full of information."

When the Elliotts started using biodiesel in their generators, they turned a lot of heads. But Elliott doesn't doubt that biodiesel use will become more common, mainly because local fuel suppliers are sending out literature. She says that her company has also talked a lot about biodiesel over the past year. "Other companies are curious about it," Elliott says. "I guess they let us be the guinea pigs."

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385
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