Kingsport may switch city fleet to biodiesel

Matthew Lane • May 15, 2007 at 12:09 PM

KINGSPORT - The Model City may be getting a little greener in the coming months.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen heard a presentation Monday on the pros and cons of switching the 232 diesel vehicles within the city to biodiesel fuel. Dave Light, assistant to the city manager and over the city's fleet department, said the switch is being done in part to help Sullivan County come into compliance with Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards.

"We see the important thing being doing our part to create a cleaner environment, most notably the air that surrounds us and increasing the public awareness that every little bit that each of us can do to protect mother earth is a step well-taken," Light said.

Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities entered into early action compacts with the EPA to avoid penalties for non-attainment in regard to air quality standards. Being non-attainment can include a halt in permitting new industries and a loss of federal highway dollars. All three areas have until this year to meet attainment levels, based on a three-year average of the four-highest eight-hour periods.

One step taken was the reduction of the speed limit for tractor-trailers on Interstates 81 and 26 in Sullivan County by 10 mph. Next up is the switch to biodiesel, a move the BMA appeared to support Monday afternoon.

"We know that it will make a difference. We know that. Unfortunately, if we've got 230-odd vehicles running out here, there's 10 times that many out there that will not be converting," Light said. "At least we can be doing our part before we reach the ozone non-attainment status."

Biodiesel is a clean burning fuel made from natural, renewable resources such as vegetable oil and soybean oil. Biodiesel blends are composed of biodiesel fuel and petroleum-based diesel fuel and have designations such as B5 or B20, with the number representing the percentage of biodiesel in the blend.

Light is proposing Kingsport switch to B5 fuel by July 1 and gradually move up to B20 fuel over the next nine months. The start date has also been selected in order for Kingsport to find a supplier and draw down the city's existing diesel fuel stock.

Some of the advantages of biodiesel is it reduces carbon dioxide emissions by at least 75 percent when using B100 fuel, it has fewer particulate emissions, and is safer to store and transport due to a lower flash point. However, some engine manufacturers will not offer engine warranties for those who use biodiesel, and the fuel results in increased nitrous oxide emissions.

Light said biodiesel could be used with the existing city vehicles, though some minor changes may have to take place.

"What will happen will be because of the solvent nature of biodiesel, it will dissolve some of sludge that may have been built up in the tanks of the vehicles, and that will increase the fuel filter change necessity until it's all cleaned out," Light said. "Also, some of the hoses and fittings that are rubber may have to be changed to plastic."

Another disadvantage of using biodiesel is the cost - about 12 to 14 cents more per gallon, Light said.

Kingsport uses approximately 250,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, and a switch to biodiesel would push that figure up by around $37,500 in using B5 fuel. When the city eventually uses B20, the figure will go up by another $10,000. Kingsport's total fuel bill has more than doubled to $1 million in the last three or four years due to rising gasoline and diesel fuel prices.

During Monday's work session Light said Kingsport could apply for a $48,000 state grant to help offset the cost of fuel filter replacements.

BMA members asked several questions about the proposal during the presentation, but ultimately appeared to support its implementation.

Alderman Ken Maness asked if biodiesel fuels result in lower miles per gallon, would Kingsport still be putting as much of the fossil-based emissions into the air and not really making a difference with air quality.

Light said the move would show the EPA Kingsport is making a concerted effort to improve the air quality of the region.

"If we start convincing folks, that helps us with our position with the EPA and attainment standards," Light said.

Alderman Valerie Joh said others have used Kingsport's air quality against the city in terms of quality of life.

"I think we not only as individuals and a community need to think in green ways, but what we need to do is set an example," Maness said. "We need to do things to make a difference. We need to make sure we're not only waving the right flag, but doing things that economically and environmentally make a difference."

City Manager John Campbell said Kingsport would make it to attainment this year, unless the city has an extreme summer.

"(Non-attainment) is an automatic disqualifier for some companies, and it has been used repeatedly against Sullivan County," he said.

Last fall, Kingsport began using biodiesel in its landfill equipment, and Light said there have been no problems since. Light said the switch is not something cast in stone.

"We've got a $19 million fleet, and if it turns out not the thing to do, we'll go back to straight diesel," Light said.

Other communities and business have already made the switch to biodiesel in the Tri-Cities.

Eastman Chemical Co. in 2005 switched its 200-plus vehicle fleet from diesel fuel to biodiesel to help reduce air emissions at its Kingsport plant, and in June 2006 Johnson City switched from standard diesel fuel to a B5 biodiesel blend.

In lieu of a civil penalty, BAE Systems agreed in March of this year to perform a supplemental environmental project where it will pay $59,000 to the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition to help support the development of B20 biodiesel and E85 ethanol pumps at retail stations in Sullivan and Washington counties.

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