TransAtlas: new NREL tool shows biodiesel supply and demand dynamics

By Nicholas Zeman | July 15, 2009
Last September when U.S. DOE's Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center compiled a list of filling stations that offered biodiesel in blends over 20 percent, it found 645 outlets across the U.S. Most of those are in high demand centers on the East and West coasts while the central location of biodiesel production is sparsely populated with stations to move the fuel it manufactures. California has 37 biodiesel refueling stations, while Iowa and Minnesota-biodiesel plant strongholds-have a combined six. "Iowa has a great incentive for retail stations so I don't know why they have so few," said Tom Verry, director of development and outreach for the National Biodiesel Board. "The big demand centers, especially the Northwest, have big grass-roots movements. In the Midwest, it's mostly the truckers and farmers who are using biodiesel."

This information can now be viewed on a new mapping tool developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory meant to "help industry and government planners implement alternative fuels and advanced vehicles," and deploys an extensive amount of alternative fuels data in a very user-friendly way. Joanna Lavine of NREL said the concept of the architecture TransAtlas is based on is nearly three years old, and the execution of the public Web application took about three months to finalize. "The density of registered diesel vehicles will be the areas of highest demand for biodiesel," Lavine said. "TransAtlas shows the disconnect between supply and demand centers in the U.S. and we hope that it will be instrumental in helping more successful infrastructure developments emerge. Our goal is to help identify current and potential supply and demand trends so users who might want to install a biodiesel refueling station will have the knowledge about the best places to do this," she said. "To be able to get a national picture [of the industry] better informs decision makers and the public about what is going on out there in the alternative fuels community."

Providing a comprehensive array of data at one Web portal, TransAtlas illustrates the convergence of flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs), Clean Cities coalitions, alternative fueling stations, fuel production facilities and transportation routes for E85. Maps that highlight U.S. biomass production and areas of highest potential for hydrogen consumption are also available. This "interactive map" uses a Google Maps interface to display existing and planned alternative fueling stations, alternative fuel production facilities, light-duty vehicle density, roads and political boundaries.

"The world of alternative fuels within the reach of your computer," is a slogan that DOE's Clean Cities program is promoting to spur use of the new TransAtlas tool. One of TransAtlas' goals is to encourage the development of a more robust biodiesel infrastructure.

For would-be biodiesel purchasers, there is no more need to make phone calls or drive around searching for a retail outlet with a "B20" or "B100" sign shining like a beacon. Fuel consumers can now simply access the TransAtlas portal at the AFDC Web site and query a "pink point," which indicates a biodiesel filling station. For instance, Biodiesel Magazine queried several locations and found that TransAtlas contained the following information for every outlet listed: the biodiesel blends offered ("B20 and above"), the name and address of the station, and even the exact latitudinal coordinates of the site.

The NBB has been collaborating with NREL in adding biodiesel production data to TranslAtlas, which currently only features ethanol industry production information. "We are currently working on completing our producer survey so we have the most accurate information about who is producing, and that information will be added to the map," Verry said. He added that the interactive map is welcomed education that will help the biodiesel market. "We're certainly supportive of anything that promotes biodiesel availability," he said. "This is another tool to help do that."

TransAtlas compliments other projects NBB is involved in such as, which includes testimony from drivers who use biodiesel and helps over-the-road (OTR) haulers plan routes where they can continuously fill with biodiesel blends. "Trucks use more diesel fuel than anything else in this country," Verry said. "Recently, at the Great West Truck Show, it was obvious that a lot of the attendees wanted more availability of biodiesel."

Because infrastructure has to build geographically, potential biodiesel retailers have to examine routes of heavy OTR traffic, diesel vehicle density and biodiesel production data.

Now they have a powerful utility at their disposal in these tasks. Therefore, developments in building out the biodiesel retail apparatus will be more seamless and provide business leaders the information they need to make better decisions. "I really think this will encourage the installation of more retail outlets, and that means more availability of biodiesel in the future, which will ultimately help expand our market," Verry said. "We really applaud the work that NREL is doing-they do a great job and we feel their work is really promoting the development of the biodiesel industry."
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