Getting Pumped Up About Biodiesel

March 19, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Crystal Flash President Tom Fehsenfeld and his team have been pumping up the volume of soy diesel sales since the August unveiling of the area’s first biodiesel pump at the Crystal Flash station at 1754 Alpine Ave. NW.

Crystal Flash has sold nearly 1.5 million gallons of soy diesel through pump and wholesale delivery. That’s about double what Fehsenfeld had expected to sell, given that it was a new product on the local market.

He anticipates sales will grow to 7 million gallons this year and to 15 million gallons next year.

“We’ve taken a little bit different position than a lot of distributors,” Fehsenfeld said. “A lot of people are just blending up a kind of generic soy diesel fuel. We’ve gone out and actually found a special premium diesel that works well with the soy. The two together really make a great product that we’ve branded as Crystal Flash Soy Diesel XC.”

The biggest response has been from the West Michigan farming community, he said.

“I think there’s kind of a natural affinity among farmers for the soy diesel product. We’ve also had good support from trucking firms.

“The most exciting thing is that we’re getting a lot of informal customer feedback that they really appreciate the fact that our soy diesel doesn’t smoke. It starts up really quick and seems to run quieter than typical diesel.”

Crystal Flash offers a 20 percent soy diesel blend at the pump. Wholesale customers have a choice of either a 2 percent or 20 percent blend that Crystal Flash delivers by truck.

“We’ve basically taken the position that we know that the quality of our 2 percent blend and our 20 percent blend are good because we know how to put in the right amount of additives to keep the soy diesel and petroleum diesel working together,” Fehsenfeld said.

“We’re trying to be conservative about not just throwing any blend out on the market that people want. We have to stand behind the products we put in the market. We’ve really worked hard and done a lot of testing on both the 2 percent and 20 percent blends, and we’re not recommending other blends at this point.”

The 2 percent is enough to add some of the beneficial characteristics of increased lubricity and helps prevent engine wear, he said, and it’s more affordable because the price of soy diesel remains higher than conventional diesel.

Because it’s still a fairly new product, soy diesel is not yet being produced in enough quantity to bring its price down, Fehsenfeld explained. However, there are a lot of efforts being undertaken around the country to increase soy diesel production.

Currently a B20 biodiesel blend runs about 12 cents to 15 cents a gallon higher than conventional diesel, Fehsenfeld said.

“We’re dealing with two different cost bases: One is what OPEC wants to do with the price of oil and the other is what happens with the farm commodity market, so the price does shift from time to time.”

For the past 18 months, Crystal Flash has been providing Michigan State University with soy diesel for all the university’s on-road diesel trucks used for campus maintenance and its off-road diesel farm machinery and equipment used in its agriculture program, said Doug Koessel, sales and marketing manager for Crystal Flash.

Koessel oversees a team of Crystal Flash sales people from Traverse City to Marshall and Paw Paw. The company sells diesel fuel, gasoline, propane, oils and lubricants, in addition to branded diesel fuels that can be blended with soy.

He noted that during a two-month promotion last fall, the company sold almost 1 million gallons of fuel, of which about a third was soy diesel.

“That was the first time we had sold soy diesel and we were real happy with sales.”

Catholic Central, West Catholic and Zeeland Public school bus systems have been using the Crystal Flash soy diesel product, as well.

“Part of that had to do with grant money that was introduced two years ago by the state of Michigan for school systems,” Koessel explained. “It gives them a little incentive so that the little extra cost they have to pay for soy is funded.”

Verhey Motor Coach Co. has been using the Crystal Flash blend for more than four months in all five of the tour buses in its fleet.

“The fuel has been performing exceptionally well,” said Operations Manager Patrick Irish.

Both the company’s drivers and its clients have remarked that soy diesel fuel emissions are not offensive smelling like regular diesel fuel.

“We’ve noticed an increase in mileage and an increase in performance and a decrease in maintenance costs. We test our oils to see what the pollutant content is and we’ve noticed that has gone down. We’re actually winding up with a better-lubricated engine. It’s been a benefit for us because of the quantity of fuel we use.”

Educating the public about the benefits of soy diesel vs. petroleum diesel is a big part of the marketing effort. Koessel believes it’s important that people understand the impact soy diesel can have on the environment and how it can lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

He is talking with some local marinas about offering the product to West Michigan boaters this summer.

“Most of the diesel boats are on the big lake. We’re looking into the possibility of a couple of pilot marinas that we can get involved with this year and introduce it to the Holland, Grand Haven and Muskegon areas.”

The fuel has already proven seaworthy. Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute has used Crystal Flash’s 20 percent soy blend in both its vessels on Lake Michigan, and the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Muskegon has used 100 percent soy diesel in one of its vessels, The Shenehon.

Last year was actually the third consecutive year The Shenehon has operated on 100 percent biodiesel from May through September, said Dennis Donahue, GLERL marine superintendent. The organization started using Crystal Flash as its supplier last year.

“It’s been an outstanding success in every respect,” he remarked. “The scientists that work on board the vessel prefer the biodiesel. You don’t have that diesel fuel odor that a lot of times aggravates seasickness. The boat is cleaner because we don’t have the black, sooty exhaust, and the engine runs cleaner.”

There are a couple of federal boats on the West Coast that use 100 percent biodiesel, but GLERL was the first in Michigan to use pure biodiesel, he noted.

“The unique thing about our operation was that The Shenehon was built in the early 1950s so it’s an old vessel. The other ones that are burning 100 percent are brand new vessels that were designed around biodiesel. We were kind of on the cutting edge with regard to a conversion over to that product.”

Crystal Flash buys soy diesel from a variety of suppliers, among them Zeeland Farm Services of Michigan and West Central Soy of Iowa.

Fehsenfeld and his suppliers are planning a major promotion this spring targeted at wholesale customers.

“We’ll be looking to try and sell this to other gas station owners that sell to the public. We’re looking at a pretty major rollout later this year.”    

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