Tuesday, November 29, 2005

San Francisco City Government Takes A Step Closer To Using Biodiesel: Lessons From Municipal Biodiesel Contracting

I have been a biodiesel advocate for a number of years now. I would characterize myself as one of those who could not understand why more fleets, and why more government fleets in particular, were not switching to biodiesel blends. I generally attributed it to one of two things, price or institutional resistance to change. Price is still an issue in some markets, like Northern California, but has been eliminated, or at least reduced, as an issue in other markets.

I have been working with the City of San Francisco the past few months on their fuel purchasing contract. The City is incorporating biodiesel into the fuel contract for the first time. Here is a link to the contract.

This experience has forced me to revisit my thoughts about institutional resistance to change. MUNI, San Francisco's public transportation agency, has a particularly challenging environment. MUNI consumes around 6 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. They have several yards, each with their own fuel tanks. Buses can start any given day at one yard and end the day in another. So the idea of starting some buses on biodiesel is impractical, as it is very difficult to know where any given bus will be on any given day.

Further complicating matters, MUNI has a policy that all fuel tanks must be at least 75% full at all times. This is San Francisco after all and we do have earthquakes, so the City must be prepared at all times with reserve fuel. This policy has a few implications. First, in the ideal world, you would empty and clean a tank prior to switching over to biodiesel. If you have to maintain the tank at least 75% full at all times, you can never empty and clean a tank. Second, biodiesel is still a young industry. Supply is not consistent enough to guarantee that you will be able to maintain tanks at least 75% full at all times. Accordingly, provision must be made to supplement with diesel when biodiesel is not available as delivery must be made every day to maintain the required fuel level.

The largest tank farm is comprised of four 20,000 gallon below ground tanks. These four tanks are interconnected, creating in essence one 80,000 gallon tank. It is very likely that the tank contains sediment. Cleaning out the sediment prior to switching to biodiesel will obviously be a challenge. Doable, but a challenge.

Then there is the topic of politics. I will grant you that San Francisco is a more political City than most, but I believe the lessons learned here are generally applicable elsewhere. The push to use biodiesel has been both a bottom-up and a top-down phenomenon. From the bottom-up have been the people running the alternative fuels program and the local biodiesel community. From the top-down have been the Mayor and his Department of the Environment. What has been missing is support from those on the front line, the fuel managers, mechanics, drivers and their immediate bosses. Without the support of these front line implementers, biodiesel will go nowhere. I have learned that taking the time to educate everyone involved is essential and that one should start early. City agencies will fight tooth and nail if they are not consulted early and often. They need to feel ownership of the program. The goal of these front line employees is to keep the buses running after all, not to clean them up. That is the job of the biodiesel advocates and the politicians who support them. Our job is to bring the front line employees to our side, patiently and respectfully. Biodiesel is a great fuel after all, but that does not mean that you can short-cut the process of change that switching to biodiesel represents. While biodiesel is a "drop-in" fuel, the reality on the ground when mananging large fleets is that every precaution must be taken.


The Fire Department, MUNI, the Parks Department and the Zoo have all expressed interest in using biodiesel. Now that the City's fuel contract will include biodiesel procurement for the first time, they should be able to begin their pilot programs and eventually move to more widespread biodiesel use. They will likely start with B20 and increase the percentage in the blend over time. Another exciting biodiesel journey has begun.

If anyone feels like responding to the City's biodiesel fuel contract, please let me know. We are working hard to ensure that several quality biodiesel bids come in.

3 comments:

kredietlenenhypotheken said...

Hello Eric Bowen ,

What a nice blog you have here! Amazing stuff! Blogger may be proud to have you on board! It must have been a lot of time and effort! The way I like it!

Kindest regards, and thanks for your information!

Anne lenen

ShaqDiesel said...

Eric-
Will you please elaborate on the need to clean out a tank before switching from diesel to biodiesel? I was under the impression that no alterations needed to be made on post-1997 diesel engines.
Thanks
-ShaqDiesel

D squared said...

A couple of questions:

1. Surely these buses have a preventative maintenance schedule. Perhaps an exception can be made on the 75% rule for any bus within 2 (or pick a number) days of it's scheduled PM. Or why can't the tanks be pumped out as the buses are taken out of service for PMs? The tanks could be cleaned out at the same time if necessary. Boats and heating oil tanks receive this kind of service pretty regularly - the fuel is even filtered and put back in!

2. Why is mixing diesel and biodiesel in any given bus a problem? After all, the plan is to start with B20, which is just a rather precise mix of the two. Is a more uncontrolled mixture really that much of a problem? If you run out of biodiesel, just add diesel. That's what we all do out here in the real world.

And a couple of additional comments:
I work for the city and am painfully aware of the bureaucratic cluster-(umms) that take place when any change is attempted.

To my tiny corner of the world, it seems that there needs to be a transition team dedicated to solving these problems in a very hands-on manner, with authority to select vehicles, equipment, etc, take them out of service, perhaps just one at a time, and do what needs to be done. The point person for this imagined perfect world order would need to be more diplomat than anything else, with a group of hand picked mechanics (I'm sure the city employs many competent and eager mechanics already, no need to go outside to hire them) and support bureaucrats to do the mechanical and support-'bureaucratal' tasks once the requisite political "rump-massaging" and "feather-deruffling" has been completed.