February 8, 2007

C.U. Commits to Alternative Fuel

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As the term “organic” becomes increasingly prevalent in everyday vocabulary, and the phrases “greenhouse gas” and “El Niño” are thrown around as much at family dinner tables as they are in the offices of high ranking government officials, sustainable living and environmental awareness have recently been sources of political debate and corporate analysis.

But while many communities around the country are proud of the recycling bins in their office buildings’ mail rooms and the placement of solar heating panels around their municipal swimming pools, Ithaca and the greater Tompkins County area have capitalized on this national environmental trend to institute sustainable practices into various aspects of residential and commercial life.

One of the most pervasive initiatives implemented thus far is the recent commitment made by various local organizations towards the purchase of
561,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel. Under the leadership of Ethan Rainwater ’06, Cornell University, TCAT, the Ithaca School District, Tompkins County Public Works, Town of Ithaca Public Works and the City of Ithaca will use B5, a blend of fuel that is 95% petroleum diesel and 5% soy-based fuel, in their motor vehicles and public transportation services starting this August.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the response I got from various local organizations,” said Rainwater, who is currently an intern for Cornell’s sustainability coordinator, and is particularly interested in transportation systems. “It was time to make some changes.”

“Biodiesel lowers greenhouse gas emissions and is cleaner than fossil fuels,” said Wendy Skinner, director of communications and marketing for TCAT. “Commercial biodiesel hasn’t been available for use until recently, and we are very excited to take advantage of this opportunity.”

TCAT has pledged to buy 200,000 gallons per year of B5 biodiesel, the most of any Tompkins County organization. Additionally, TCAT is creating three new hybrid-electric buses, which will run on electric engines, and are scheduled to begin operating this fall. “The buses will look the same, but will have smaller engines and will be better for the environment. They will be 20% more fuel efficient,” Skinner said.

While TCAT’s actions will have substantial environmental effects, they also are strategically important from a business vantage point. “We are optimistic that our use of B5 will inspire people to ride our buses. As the price of fuel continues to increase, hopefully cleaner buses will attract people who are working to make sustainable life choices,” Skinner said.

In addition to the many benefits that B5 offers the environment, the organizations that are planning to use it will incur some costs. Like other blends of biofuel, B5 is more expensive than standard diesel, and amounts to between 10 and 20 additional cents per gallon. Such costs, however, are minor compared to innumerable advantages provided by biodiesel, according to some participants in the initiative.“Cornell wants to do the right thing, even if it involves paying more for fuel,” said Dennis Osika, director of Cornell’s Grounds Department.

Osika, along with Cornell Farm Services, has been participating in a pilot project since October which involves the use of a diesel blend with 20% soy-based fuel (B20) in some of Cornell’s larger vehicles like trucks and tractor trailers. B20 is not compatible with standard gas tanks, and cannot mix with standard fossil fuels, so before the University invests in new technology and equipment on its behalf, Farm Services is testing its performance this year.

“The only difficulty that B20 imposes is that it increases the amount of organic buildup in the engines’ tanks,” Osika said. “We are experimenting to see how reliable B20 will be in the winter months before we make a larger investment in it.”

Tompkins County organizations will obtain the biodiesel through a bidding process coordinated by New York State. Starting in April, the New York State government will research and locate various fuel distribution companies, and will accept a bid from the one that offers the lowest price for the 561,000 gallons that Tompkins County has requested. In August, the biodiesel will be available for use.

“[B5] costs more because the demand is low. It has fewer, widely spaced distribution centers. We are hoping to create a large enough demand that it will lower the price to that of regular diesel,” said Dave Bacharach, transportation manager of the Ithaca School District.

The transition to biodiesel fuel, while novel to Upstate New York, has been successfully completed in other regions of the country. According to Skinner, cities such as Toronto and Cincinnati have ample supplies of biofuel which their public transportation systems utilize.

“I’m glad that I was able to help bring such an important practice to Tompkins County,” said Rainwater.