Ten of Portland’s 200 municipal vehicles will run on biodiesel rather than conventional fuel as part of a pilot program launched last week. Vehicles affected include five school buses, a trash truck, and a pickup truck.
“We want to do our part to reduce our dependence on foreign fuel, to produce cleaner emissions than we are currently with just straight diesel, just to head in that direction and get some real live data with alternative fuels,” explains Kevin Austin, fleet manager for the Portland Public Works Department and one of the organizers of the pilot program.
The city plans to monitor the mileage and engine condition of the vehicles for two months and then assess the success of the program in late June. If the results are positive, public works officials plan to expand the program to include more municipal vehicles.
Frontier Oil Co. in China, Maine, is providing Portland with the B-20 biodiesel (a common biodiesel mixture of 20 percent soybean fuel and 80 percent standard petroleum-based diesel fuel) at a price of 20 cents more per gallon than regular gasoline. Portland’s municipal vehicles use 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, says Austin. He estimates biodiesel fuel for the pilot program will cost the city an extra $200 over the next two months. The Public Works department is using money from its budget to pay for the program. No additional funds were provided.
While city officials admit the fuel won’t save money (at least in the short term), it could improve air quality and extend the lifespan of the engines in the city’s vehicles.
Portland’s soybean fuel program is modeled after a similar effort in Keene, New Hampshire. Since 2004, the city of Keene has run all 68 of its city vehicles (including ambulances, dump trucks, and snow haulers) on biodiesel fuel rather than diesel fuel. According to Stephen Russell, fleet superintendent for the Keene Public Works Department, the program has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in Keene by about 420 tons per year. The engines of Keene municipal vehicles are also “running cleaner,” especially during the cold winter months, because biodiesel fuel remains fluid at low temperatures which typically thicken diesel fuel.
“They had success with it that it was an incentive for us to do the same,” says Peter DeWitt, spokesman for the city of Portland. “They’re a similar community, they’re a little smaller than us, but they deal with the same seasonal issues.”
Austin and Russell will attend the state's first alternative fuel conference this Thursday in Augusta to talk about their soybean fuels. The Maine Department of Transportation is sponsoring the day-long event to introduce officials from municipalities across the state to cleaner fuel options like biodiesel. An MDOT spokesman says the event was so popular he had to turn people away.