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The year in biofuels

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January 1, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

MIDDLEBURY — In the three years since the Vermont Biofuels Association was founded to increase demand and capacity for locally produced biofuels — a term that describes biologically based fuels like ethanol and methane — the industry has changed a lot. According to Netaka White, executive director of Middlebury-based VBA, the industry in 2007 will see a large change to one of its smallest components: algae.

“Next year is going to be a big year for algae. You watch,” White said.

White expects that some researcher or company will find a controlled way to produce biodiesel from algae in the coming year. By 2008, he predicted algae-based fuel systems could be commercialized. If successful, this could make a big difference to production of biodiesel in Vermont.

There has been increased interest in alternatives to fossil fuels in recent years, for reasons ranging from people looking for new ways to make farming profitable to volatile gas prices to environmental concerns.

And in recent years, White said the environmental issues have become more important and increasingly people are asking about how using biofuels could help the environment. Biofuels emit less carbon than their fossil fuel-based counterparts, so using them would one strategy to reduce global warming.

And in the last year White said that when he spoke publicly about the VBA he almost always got questions about the impact of biofuels on global warming. White called 2006 “the year that the public became aware of global climate change and how we need to make choices to reduce and reverse that trend.”

And now algae is sliding into the picture.

Pound for pound, algae is already an efficient way to produce oils that can be used to make biodiesel, but it isn’t commercially popular already because of problems finding a strain from which the oil can be easily harvested. “The challenge is to optimize production of algae in a contained, controlled environment,” White said.

A welcome side effect of algae-based biodiesel is that it could reduce pollution. “One of the real benefits of this process is that it has the chance to significantly reduce phosphorus and nitrogen that are causing a lot of pollution problems in Lake Champlain,” he said.

Nitrogen and phosphorus in animal waste can become a pollutant in waters and can cause algae blooms in lakes and rivers, but algae on farms would eat those waste products before they ever reach the lake and turn them into diesel oils. “The algae feeds on and converts the nitrogen and phosphorus … these algae facilities would be sited on farms, using the effluent from anaerobic digesters,” White said.

Another project the VBA hopes will pay off in the coming year or two is the Vermont Feed and Fuel Project, a collaborative effort with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and researchers at the University of Vermont to investigate the possibility of using certain oilseed crops, like canola or sunflowers, for both livestock feed and biodiesel.

The Feed and Fuel Project is a study of the possibility of a crushing facility in or near Addison County, where a farm or group of farms could extract the oils from those crops. The project will provide funding for local farmers in the upcoming growing season to test how well those crops grown with that use in mind would work out in Vermont.

Biodiesel is a form of diesel fuel made from plant oils. It is mixed with diesel from conventional sources, in proportions that depend on conditions like the weather, because pure biodiesel gels at higher temperatures than a mix of biodiesel and conventional diesel.

It is one of the most common forms of fuel produced from living or recently dead plant or animal matter, which are collectively called biofuels. But there are several other types, including ethanol, wood chip heating systems, and anaerobic digesters, which capture methane from cow manure.

White said he hopes the coming years will continue the growth and development of the biofuels industry in Addison County that took place throughout 2006. “The last year has seen considerable growth in this sector.”

From a September decision by Middlebury College to build a biomass-fueled power plant, to a decision by the Middlebury selectboard in July to heat town buildings with biodiesel, use of biofuels has increased significantly over the past year.

White estimated that about 275,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel were burned in Vermont in 2005, counting all blends from pure biodiesel down to five percent, but just over a million gallons are projected for use in 2006. “Vermont is at a point where we are really addressing the notion of providing a greater amount of energy locally,” he said.

In Swanton, for example, a biodiesel production plant owned by Vermont Biocardel Inc. is expected to start production this month with an annual capacity of producing 4 million gallons of fuel, making it the largest such facility in New England.

White said that he has seen a lot of growth in research and production of biofuels locally. “Addison County is definitely one area of the state where there is a lot of those activities,” he said. Franklin County is also a big producer of biofuels, according to White, while Chittenden County is a major consumer.

Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating of Bristol and Middlebury is one such supplier in the area. The company first offered biodiesel in May 2005, but received a lot more interest in it after Middlebury College began using it for heating the following October. “We have over 50 homes buying it now,” said Bill Heffernan of Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating.

Heffernan is looking forward to the Swanton plant opening. A major production facility nearby might lead to lower prices on biodiesel, he said, encouraging more people to adopt it. “Especially if the price comes down, I think people will do it,” he said.

Joe Boise of Boise Citgo in Bridport has also seen more demand for biodiesel blends since his filling station began offering it about two years ago. “There’s definitely a lot of interest in it,” he said. “It’s still a niche market, but it’s growing.”

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