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FKEC moves to biodiesel for cleaner-burning fleet

If you find yourself driving behind a Florida Keys Electric Cooperative truck and become overwhelmed by a sudden desire for popcorn or French fries, blame the fumes from the biodiesel the utility has recently begun using in favor of traditional diesel.

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel produced from renewable resources such as soybean or palm oil. It contains no petroleum, though it can be mixed with traditional diesel at any level to create a blend. It is produced using any fat or oil — hence the smell of food when it burns — and can be used in any diesel engine with little or no modification to the engine or fuel system.

Scott Newberry, chief executive officer of the utility that serves the Upper and Middle Keys, had been on the lookout for biodiesel for quite some time before discovering a new company, Sol Atlantic Biodiesel, out of Miami-Dade County.

“We were trying to find a supplier for several months, but the problem we kept running into was you can’t really get it in the Keys, and anybody that had it wouldn’t come down with less than a tanker truckload of it,” he said. “What we have here (in Tavernier) and down in Marathon are 2,000-gallon, above-ground, concrete fuel tanks. No way could we accept a delivery of a tanker truckload.”

When their purchasing agent found Sol Atlantic, a small startup in Miami-Dade County, they were finally able to get the smaller deliveries they were looking for.

“They actually contacted us before we were even in business,” said Sol Atlantic’s Christian Miranda, who recently opened the business with partner Lisa Bowman. “They called us and we got our first shipment of fuel on a Friday, and that following Monday we made our first delivery to them.”

Miranda had been in Oregon on vacation when he discovered the prevalence of biodiesel on the west coast. Realizing the product’s worth, and that it was largely unavailable in the Miami area, the University of Florida student decided to put school on hold and pursue his own biodiesel business.

“I’ve always wanted to do something to help the environment and do something for the greater good,” Miranda said. “I called Lisa and she agreed to start the business with me. I came back from vacation, we started planning the business, and we just opened two months ago.”

The permitting process took quite a while, but the business is now up and running. Sol Atlantic participated in the Green Living Energy & Education Expo on March 31 in Marathon.

The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative is Sol Atlantic’s main account, but they are in talks with a recycling company interested in using biodiesel for their fleet. People can also stop in and fill up their vehicles at Sol Atlantic’s Hialeah Gardens location.

“We’ve gotten a pretty good response,” Miranda said, “but since most people haven’t heard of biodiesel they have a lot of questions about it.”

Biodiesel has been around for roughly 20 years and has been used for over 50 million miles of travel worldwide. Sol Atlantic sells a fuel made from palm oil that is imported from Ecuador. In the future they hope to be able to use biodiesel made in America, most likely soybean-based, but for now it is too expensive.

“We couldn’t justify selling biodiesel at $3.50 a gallon down here because we knew no one would buy it,” Miranda said. “So we had to look for alternatives and we decided to buy palm oil-based biodiesel, which is a lot cheaper, and so we’ve been able to stay very competitive with diesel prices.”

Sol Atlantic currently sells biodiesel at $2.89 per gallon, 10 cents cheaper than traditional diesel in the Miami area. Newberry says the cooperative has been thrilled with the product’s performance so far and recommends it to anyone with a diesel engine vehicle.

“Even if you have a little diesel VW Rabbit, I’d recommend if you can find biodiesel, run it in it,” he said. “Why not? There’s almost no emissions out of biodiesel, zero sulfur really. You’re using a renewable resource and you’re emitting less carbon pollutants into the air. I’d like to see it where the local gas stations have biodiesel pumps or they’re blending it themselves.

“Hopefully, if more people can get supplies of it and start using it I think you’ll see more support going towards the American farmer than to other countries overseas for petroleum products,” he added. “But you have to start someplace, and we thought we’d be a good one to start with.”

Christopher Cowen, a biodiesel proponent living in Key West, agreed with Newberry but said there are many obstacles to overcome before biodiesel use becomes common. The lifelong environmentalist recently purchased 500 gallons of biodiesel from Sol Atlantic to supply the trucks of a fencing and landscaping business he works with.

While living in Arizona, Cowen used to make his own fuel, even driving across the country using only straight vegetable oil in his car. “You basically have to filter it and heat it to a temperature of at least 160 degrees before it goes into the injection pump,” he said. “That’s it really, there’s really nothing to it.”

Cowen said he is encouraged by the fact the product has become available in the Keys.

“People are starting to realize there is an alternative there that actually works,” he said. “So it is catching on, for sure.”

In the meantime, people like Bowman and Miranda are doing what they can while exploring options for the future. For instance, Miranda says algae may one day surpass oils as the main source of biodiesel fuel. Algae are 50 percent oil by weight and they produce a very high yield.

“Algae gives you 10,000 gallons (of fuel) per acre, where soybean, I think, only gives you 48 gallons per acre,” he said. “When we have more money to invest in research, we’ll plan to build a plant down here that’s algae-based. I think that’s the future.”

For more information on biodiesel, visit www.biodiesel.org, or contact Sol Atlantic at 305-698-3679.

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