Oil from soybeans helps power

ST. PAUL -- Twin Cities' residents who took a record77 millions bus rides last year can thank their rural cousins for providing an increasing amount of the fuel.

ST. PAUL -- Twin Cities' residents who took a record77 millions bus rides last year can thank their rural cousins for providing an increasing amount of the fuel.

Soybean fields that dot the Minnesota landscape from Canada to Iowa increasingly are the source of an oil that when mixed with diesel fuels the buses.

More big-city residents are taking the bus each year, fueled by skyrocketing gasoline costs. Also, there is an increasing concern for the environment that soybean-based biodiesel can help keep clean.

"It is not your parents' bus company any more," Bob Gibbons of Metro Transit said, rekindling memories of buses belching black smoke into the face of anyone unfortunate enough to be standing nearby.

That smoke cleared up a bit in 2005 when Metro Transit's 886 buses began using cleaner diesel fuel. The exhaust fumes improved again in July of 2006 as diesel included 5 percent biodiesel. The biodiesel content jumped to 10 percent last August and is rising to 20 percent in March.


With the current diesel usage of up to 9 million gallons annually, that means nearly 4,000 acres of farmland was needed to grow soybeans used to help power Twin Cities buses.

That pleases Bruce Hill, president of the Brewster-based Minnesota Soybean Processors.

"It makes our marketing options more broad," the southwestern Minnesota farmer said.

The farmer-owned Brewster plant -- where much of the Twin Cities' bus biodiesel is produced -- can make biodiesel and other types of oil, as can two other Minnesota soybean processors.

It is a city-country relationship most people don't realize.

Metro Transit promotes the fact that its buses now dump fewer pollutants into the air but doesn't say that is in part because it buys the soybean-based fuel.

Cities across the country are using diesel fuel with varying degrees of biodiesel, usually made from soybeans -- although other plant oils also may be used.

San Francisco has the country's largest biodiesel-fueled fleet, 1,500 vehicles ranging from buses to fire engines.


For Tim Gerlach of the American Lung Association's Upper Midwest chapter, the big biodiesel advantage is clean air. But like with corn-based ethanol, he sees rural economic advantages, too.

When he visited an ethanol plant, Gerlach said, he saw a bustling downtown when other towns without a plant were much quieter. And he saw smiles on people's faces as they held their ethanol payment checks.

A biodiesel boom similar to the one ethanol experienced is likely, given a new federal energy law promoting such fuels, Gerlach said.

"Here is something we are producing closer to home," Gerlach said. He said that makes it a more secure energy source than overseas oil and that it takes less energy to transport it.

A 20 percent biodiesel blend, like Metro Transit plans to use in warm months, could reduce a vehicle's air pollution by 15 percent because plant oil burns cleaner than traditional oil.

While high percentages of ethanol in gasoline reduce fuel mileage, Metro Transit's experience shows biodiesel and regular diesel get the same 3.9 miles per gallon average. New electric-diesel hybrid buses being integrated into the Twin Cities' fleet also will use biodiesel, but they are expected to travel 4.7 miles on a gallon.

If current price trends hold, Metro Transit will pay a bit more when it converts to20 percent biodiesel in the spring. The current price for that is $2.99 a gallon, compared to $2.97 for the 10 percent blend now used.

With the switch to biodiesel, and the addition of hybrid buses, Metro Transit estimates it will save 1.6 million gallons of fossil-fuel oila year while eliminating168 tons of pollution. Metro Transit thinks its changes will save $650,000 a year.


Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.

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