Spokane Journal of Business

Business-plan draft due on biodiesel plant

Group will know more in 90 days on effort to build alternative-fuel facility here

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The group thats investigating building a biodiesel-processing plant here says it expects to have completed a draft business plan for the project in 90 days and hopes construction will start on the facility in early 2003.

While the group has no firm estimate yet on the cost of the proposed plant, its evaluating technologies that could produce 1 million to 3 million gallons of biodiesel a year, says Jim Armstrong, information and special projects manager for the Spokane County Conservation District, which is part of the group.

Those technologies reputedly range in price from $250,000 for a plant that would use a system the University of Idaho employs to $5 million for plants that have been built elsewhere in the nation, Armstrong says.

Biodiesel is made by removing the triglyceride molecule from vegetable oil through a chemical process, he says. The remaining molecules are similar to diesel fuel.

Biodiesel production would create new markets for farmers by generating demand for oil-seed crops such as canola, mustard, sunflowers, safflowers, corn, oats, mustard, pumpkins, cotton, hemp, and soybeans. Also, used cooking oil would be sought from restaurants as a raw material for the plant. Eventually, Armstrong says, We will bring in used oil from Missoula, certainly northwestern Montana, all the way to the Basin, which includes the Tri-Cities area.

The conservation district is working with Avista Corp., the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority (SCAPCA), the Spokane Transit Authority, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Washington state Department of Ecology, and others to develop a plant. The district, Avista, EPA, and Ecology are covering the $53,000 cost of the business plan, Armstrong says.

The STA is keenly interested in seeing biodiesel produced locally because that could make the fuel economical for the transit agency to burn in its buses, says STA Director Allen Schweim.

The transit organization ran mixes of up to 30 percent biodiesel and 70 percent conventional diesel in its buses for about a year in a pilot project in the early 90s, Schweim says.

We did have measurable improvements in our emissions tests, he says.

The agencys drivers thought their buses had more power while they were running on biodiesel mixes, although that was a perception, Schweim says. The drivers were commenting about it. It was not that scientific.

Also, because soot from fossil-fuel diesel coats the bus parts the agencys mechanics handle, STA periodically must steam-clean the walls of its shops, but that problem was far less severe in the separate garages where STA kept the buses that burned the biodiesel mixes, Schweim says.

After the pilot program, STA couldnt continue to burn the biodiesel mixes because it would have had to transport biodiesel from the Midwest, which made it cost prohibitive to burn the mixes, Schweim says.

If a biodiesel plant is built here, STA would buy part of the production from the plant, but has yet to decide exactly how much of the fuel it would take, Schweim says. The agency, which uses 1.2 million gallons of diesel a year, could consume about 240,000 gallons of biodiesel a year if it chose to burn an 80-20 blend in its buses, but says thats a rough estimate, says Schweim, who didnt have information on the best available mix. Its also far less biodiesel than a plant would produce. Obviously, it will take more than just the STA to make such a plant viable, Schweim says.

Schweim remembers that during the pilot project, some STA patrons said the emissions from the biodiesel blends smelled like french fries and asked whether the agency had flavored its fuel, Schweim says. He adds, No, we didnt.

Eric Skelton, director of SCAPCA, says biodiesel contains no sulfur or aromatics, which are toxic compounds such as benzine, which is a carcinogen. Also, exhaust from biodiesel is lower in particulate than that from conventional diesel fuel, which is the issue SCAPCA is most concerned about, Skelton says. Particulate from diesel soot is highly toxic and so tiny that it gets into the lungs easily, he says.

Skelton says of the effort to build the plant, We are encouraging it, certainly.

Avista spokesman Pat Lynch says that Spokane company is covering its part of the business plans cost with money it had set aside to mitigate air-quality effects from running its northeast Spokane combustion turbine here for excess hours.

Armstrong says that to be viable, the biodiesel industry must have an exemption from road taxes, which are paid on conventional diesel fuels. Biodiesel costs more per gallon to produce than conventional diesel, and cant compete without a tax exemption, he says. The group thats working to develop a biodiesel plant here will drop a bill into the hopper during the next session of the Washington Legislature to begin familiarizing legislators with the issue.

While the biodiesel plant steering committee believes that Spokane-area restaurants use 100,000 gallons of cooking oil a month, it knows that so-called yellow grease already is collected regularly and resold by recyclers for use in products such as animal foods. Weve got to be able to pay a competitive price for the raw material, Armstrong says.

Its an open question, however, whether an oil-seed crushing plant would be built to produce oils for a plant here, says Armstrong. He says, We could probably go up to Edmonton right now and pick up one that has been mothballed.

Oil-crushing plants are riskier ventures than fuel-processing plants, because when the prices of other crops rise, growers will plant them and stop growing oil-seed crops, Armstrong says.

No land has been selected to serve as a site for the proposed biodiesel plant yet, but Armstrong says, Its going to be a fairly small chunk of property. I would think that five acres would be more than enough.

It might take a larger parcel to house both a biodiesel plant and a crushing plant, but the two facilities wouldnt be located at the same spot necessarily, he says. A separate group is looking at the feasibility of developing an oil-crushing plant in Whitman County now, he adds.

Any plant built here would be modular, so its capacity could be expanded, Armstrong says. He says the technology used by the University of Idaho would enable construction of a compact plant, and he hopes that eventually a small biodiesel plant will be in operation in each of the smalland sufferingfarm towns that dot the Inland Northwest. He wont speculate, however, on how large that a plant built here might eventually grow to be.

Thats got to be market driven, he says. We want the market to pull it, rather than us try to push it.

  • Richard Ripley

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