Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, September 11, 2009

BioHeat versus petroleum heating oil

As many of you know, we buy BioHeat for our oil furnace. It's currently at a mix of 30% biodiesel and 70%ish conventional heating oil (aka B30). When I initially signed up for the BioHeat program years ago, I did so because I figured it was better for the environment even though it cost more than the regular heating oil option. Cleaner burning and all that.

I've ruminated on the issues with buying BioHeat in the past, but basically to recap, the underlying problem is that it takes more petroleum-based fuel to generate the same amount of biofuel. So, wouldn't it be better to just buy the straight-up petroleum-based heating oil?

The arguments against doing so are primarily that it burns cleaner and supports energy independence, sort of, but at some point, farm equipment was burning diesel (and probably not cleanly) and oil-based fertilizers were used on the crops to grow the oil that is used in the end product. This was covered quite well in The Omnivore's Dilemma and there were a lot of well thought out answers in my last post on the subject.

But, here's the latest dilemma. Our fuel and heating company is now offering new blends at B50 and B99. Assuming the cost differential isn't exorbitant and our oil furnace can handle the higher blends, what makes the most sense from an environmental standpoint? I'm hoping to talk to the company about the source of their biofuel, but based on their website (which hasn't been updated with the new blend info) I'm certain it's not waste oil and it's most likely soybeans, possibly from WA state.

Again, do we stick with BioHeat and bump it up or scrap it altogether for sweet crude? Any thoughts on the subject? What's an environmentalist to do? Does anyone know the lifecycle stats of biofuel versus petroleum based fuel?


Robj98168 said...

LOL these dilemas. I just read Farewell My subaru, and he bought a big ass Ford Pick up and runs it on Used Vegetable Oil!!! Claims it runs better than on regular diesel as well. Maybe you can go to your local Mickey D's and work out a deal?

Aimee said...

We run our cars on home-brewed biodiesel made from waste veggie oil - not an option for most folks I realize. But I do wonder why in the heck there isn't a national oil recycling program to collect every bit of waste veggie oil that currently goes down drains and use it to make truly clean biodiesel. We also got a oil burning furnace and hope to convert to run on straight veggio oil - project for the future.

KMMBQ said...

I would buy 100% conventional heating oil but put the money saved by not purchasing B99 toward purchases that would lower our energy use and/or allow us to switch to more sustainable energy sources.

In addition to the petroleum used in the production of biofuels you should also consider other issues associated with the industrial agricultural practices that are part and parcel of the biofuels industry (many of which are also discussed in OD): (1) the fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and machinery used in the production of these crops are polluting our air, water and soils; (2) many of the crops used to make biofuels are genetically engineered open pollinated varieties that are polluting our traditional seed varieties; (3) the tillage and irrigation practices are leading to massive soil erosion which will eventually make the land unsuitable for agriculture of any kind. And there are more.

Incidentally I don’t feel that the new trend of using crop waste to make biofuels is a particularly sustainable approach either as sustainable farming methods require the return of organic matter to the soil; and traditionally a significant portion of this organic matter came from crop waste. There also have been attempts to use crops grown on lands otherwise unsuitable for agricultural use. This addresses the issue of using food as fuel, but doesn’t change the fact that it involves bringing even more land under unsustainable and harmful industrial practices.

I think the question is less one of whether or not biofuels use less petroleum than simply burning conventional oil, and more one of whether or not the biofuels industry is overall a sustainable alternative to petroleum. I don’t think it is. And therefore I wouldn’t encourage the growth of this industry by purchasing its products.

Greenpa said...

Sorry to say, but all biodiesel/bio-oils at the moment are rather horrifically bad for the environment.

It's a very long conversation. I am familiar, I'll just point out that I was one of some 40 scientists personally invited to contribute to a very early by-invitation-only symposium on the potential for cellulosic ethanol. Not bio-oil, but I keep up on both.

Briefly- oil palm is insanely productive by our standards, reaching nearly an order of magnitude more productive than soybeans. The cost is- native people displaced, forest eradicated- and the labor is mostly actual slave labor, and child labor. Quite hideous; and more so when you know that raw palm oil is excellent food for humans, among the highest in vitamin A. (You know "golden rice", the engineered rice with high A that's supposed to bring such excellent health? The palm oil is grown right down the road- by huge corporations; if the folks with A deficiencies were able to buy raw palm oil, and cook their curry or whatever in it- there would be no deficiencies. Right down the road. Literally.)

Soybeans- have been so successful in the US because they are actually a recent invading alien species. No pests. But the natural pests are getting here; soybean aphid a decade ago here, and now soybean rust, a fungus. Guess what? Now they have to spray poisons.

And soybeans are outrageously hard on the land. Erosion jumps after a bean crop- no "waste" to hold the soil. My neighbor, a soybean farmer, says they are so bad, and so easily mishandled, that farmers should have to be licensed to grow them; just the way pesticide applicators are licensed; after special classes.

I would go back to plain heating oil; the damage would be less.

And go to earth-shelter (heating and cooling), with a little bit of wood heat, when I could

Crunchy Chicken said...

KMMBQ & Greenpa - Thanks for confirming what I already figured was the case. As much as I love the idea of cleaner burning biodiesel when you look at the entire lifecycle and other impacts, it's just not worth it.

So, maybe we'll look into using money saved on biodiesel for improving our fireplace and burning wood when possible (we have a lot of burn bans in the city). It has an insert in it now, but I don't know how effective it is at heating the place. Any suggestions on that?

Jordan said...

Greenpa, what's your opinion on biofuel made from algae? I don't believe it's being widely marketed yet, but I know of a few companies who are trying to make it profitable. It is being touted as a carbon-neutral fuel, and apparently produces protein feed for livestock/animals as a byproduct. (The protein feed is actually more valuable, so I guess the fuel is the true byproduct.)

Farmer's Daughter said...

I guess it all depends on your goal. If bio-oil is more fossil fuel consumptive than home heating oil, and your goal is to reduce carbon emissions, then the answer is easy. If your goal is to support the alternative energy industry, then the bio-oil makes sense. If you're worried about supporiting domestic fuels instead of foreign oil, go for bio-fuel. If you don't like genetic modification, go for oil (I'm assuming the soy is GM, most is). See, isn't it an easy choice?

As for my house, we use heating oil because the price of bio-oil is prohibitive, so the choice is easy. Our goal is conservation, and we supplement with the woodstove. Someday, I'd like to get a wood/oil combination furnace for heat and hot water, like the one I grew up with. The down side to that is you need to build a fire in the middle of the night if you want hot water. Wood isn't perfect, of course, with particulate pollution, but you're not adding net CO2 to the atmosphere, and it can be harvest sustainably.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Sorry, that should have read "net CO2 to the BIOSPHERE."

It's been a long (short) week!

Greenpa said...

Chewy- working on getting you some sensible info, personally, I'm not familiar-

Aydan- alagal biodiesel would be wonderful- IF IF IF it could be made to work as they are promising.

I'm afraid I very much doubt it will work. The problems are Scaling Up, and Systems Integration.

I do follow the algae guys, partly because they are making the most noise at the moment.

It's not because they are the most promising. It's because they are the least well discussed right now, so the problems of scaling and integrating have not been publicized.

Take a look at my polemic on switchgrass:

The same kind of thinking and self delusion is going on right now in the algal biz.

The biggest unaddressed problem in my opinion is the inevitable contamination of the algal cultures with competitors and pathogens.

You CAN'T scale up like they're thinking and not get the fantasy monocultures contaminated. Unless, of course, the entire system is going to be run by the PhD founder. As soon as they hire plain staff- somebody will get forgetful, thinking about his/her date tonight, and let a little air in somewhere. Bingo; your entire facility is now contaminated (due to their rapid circulation of media) - you will have to shut it down, and decontaminate (time, profits out the window, and using of really nasty chemicals to clean up)- etc. The bigger your facility, the more likely it is this will happen.

Not the only problem, by far.

Greenpa said...

Oh, yeah; a well kept industry secret; the corn-ethanol yeast cultures are being maintained with MASSIVE use of antibiotics, right now. Google "use of antibiotics in meat production" . This is maybe worse, or at least as bad.

Shhh. Don't tell!

Crunchy Chicken said...

Thanks, Cramps, I look forward to your findings.

"corn-ethanol yeast" - sounds like it would make a decent moonshine if things get out of hand.

Aimee - I suspect that some day, if demand is there, we'll have a better way of collecting and sourcing waste veggie oil instead of throwing it down the drain. If my oil company got waste veggie oil from all the Seattle restaurants, then I would sign on in a heartbeat and pay extra extra for that service.

Abs - That wood/oil combo furnance thing sounds awfully cool.

Farmer's Daughter said...

The wood/oil combo is cool... Unless you're a pre-teen or teen who has to stack wood in the basement and often can't take a shower before school and do your hair just so. But hey, you've got the free laborers. When the kiddos complain, you can always just use my dad's line: "Do you like a warm house? Do you like hot baths?"

I always vowed I'd never get one... but the free heat (they use wood from lots my dad clears or dead trees on the farm, scrap wood, etc.) and hot water in the winter is too much to dismiss. They only use oil in the summer to heat water, but I've been thinking solar hot water could make them not need oil at all.

Jordan said...

Greenpa-- sorry to be dense (and, Crunchy, sorry to derail your comments), but this is the sort of thing that I was talking about. Open ponds, supposedly with indigenous algae, not closed loops. Full disclosure-- I don't work for them, but I have family around there, which is why I know about it.

Greenpa said...

Aydan- "Open ponds, supposedly with indigenous algae"

ah. Better, yes- but they're still projecting yields on start-up based demos.

The reason the rest of the algae researchers seem to be focusing on closed tube systems seem to be:more sun, less evaporation, and more productivity from "domesticated" algae- bred to produce more oil.

As they say; they'll make more money from the protein.

Even though open, they call their containments "bioreactors" - which sounds good, if you're not a biologist. :-) And they want to set up 12,000 acres per factory?? yike.

For me; not time to invest yet. If they're offering jobs- they'll probably last a few years, anyway.

Erika said...

Just a thought on the wood burning stove... 'cause I loved growing up with one... it's just *home* in the winter. IF wood is your only source of heat, you are allowed to burn during a burn ban in Washington (in the winter). Now, that brings another question - why we have the burn bans - air quality from stagnant air... but if you build a proper fire, you shouldn't negatively impact the air quality nearly as bad as the "average" guy...


perrence said...

At the request of greenpa, this is 'Middle Child.'. We recently (a year ago or so) replaced our Heatilator wood fireplace with a new airtight fireplace from Quadrafire. The Heatilator was terribly drafty and terribly inefficient. We looked at getting an insert, but those only work if you have a true masonry fireplace to put them in. We wound up with the Quadrafire 7100FP and we have been very happy with it. It is up to 77% efficent and can heat up to 3500 square feet. We don't use it as our primary heat, but you can get equipment to hook it up to the central air. When we have it running, we just turn off the furnace and turn on the central fan to circulate.

I'm definitely a proponent of wood. The gathering and manipulation are not as easy, sure, but you wind up with a much more intimate connection to your consumption.

Heather said...

Re. the algae question, unlike Greenpa I *have* found a company I've been happy to invest in, and I am an industrial chemist... I don't think it's the magic bullet, but the company we have a little money in is a NZ outfit called 'aquaflow'. They grow algae on the local sewage treatment ponds, and use wild algae in a totally open envrionment. So:

1. no extra land is taken up, so nothing is displaced
2. scale-up issues are minimal as they intend to grow by installing equipment at more treatment facilities, not by physical expansion,
3.they're using the 'cradle to cradle' principle of turning a waste product (sewage) into something useful (oil and fine chemicals).

It's not much of a 'magic bullet' for replacing our current fossil fuel usage, though: converting the entire sewage output of the town it is in, they're getting yields of about 30 litres (8 or 9 gallons) of 'biocrude' per person per year. However, I suspect that that amount of oil would be enough to provide the raw materials for much of an indivdual's annual use of pharmaceuticals, as well as allow the manufacture of some plastics, pesticides, preservatives etc.. I believe that it is sources of such chemicals that will be the more profound problem when the oil runs out (not transportation or heating), so I'm very keen to support people finding good alternatives.

Aquaflow has yet to turn a profit, but things are looking good so far, and they're exactly the kind of enterprise I'm keen to support with money I can afford to lose!

Greenpa said...

Middle kiddo- thanks. :-)

What he doesn't exactly say is that their decision was the culmination of a half a year of in depth research (which he is very good at.)

Heather- I like it! If I had two cents to rub together, I might invest in that one, myself. No delusions of grandeur; just working on sewage treatment.

Which is a big big deal, in fact. Finding some way to capture the Nitrogen and Phosphorus in city waste is one of the biggest problems we face. It's just ignored.

Personally, I think a big reason it's ignored is because budding scientists just can't see themselves saying, at a bar or other social setting, to their prospective significant other; "Oh, I work in sewage."

:-) We need to find a way to rephrase that.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Thanks guys. I think I know what I'm going to do now. We have a true masonry fireplace and chimney, so I'll look into that. We also talked with our oil heating company a while back about geothermal so we'll revisit that while we are at it.

Jordan said...

Heather, that's pretty cool about the algae at the sewage plant. I'm a student, so no money to invest here (in fact I sort of chuckle at the thought) but it's still a really neat idea.

Greenpa, I wonder if "I work in sewage" is better or worse than "I'm a taxonomist and I stare at the genitalia of invertebrates you've never heard of"? I tried to put that latter one a little more delicately when I was in a position to utter it...

perrence said...

Yeah, we looked into geothermal as well- we really wanted it, but it was way too expensive at the time (around $30,000). We had to replace the furnace, so we ended up getting a hybrid system- an efficient natural gas furnace coupled with an air source heat pump. Basically it's an air conditioner that runs both directions. It can provide heat until it's down to about 16F outside and then the furnace kicks in. That with the fireplace has been pretty good. We still want the geothermal though. Someday.
Middle Child

Aimee said...

About algae - I've wondered if it wouldn't be possible to harvest some of the terribly destructive algae blooms that form at the outlet of major rivers and cause dead zones (like the gulf of mexico). Is it the right kind of algae? As fisheries collapse, won't there be a surplus of boats that could be retrofitted as algae harvesters?