New Yorkers turning to biodiesel for heat

If the Big Apple's initiative helps reduce emissions, other cities and states may follow suit.

Manhattan's Lower East Side is famous for its pastrami and pickles as well as its rich Jewish heritage. Now, a small cooperative building in the area is one of the first places in the city to use a blend of heating oil and biodiesel to keep residents warm this winter.

In the basement of the former tenement, a boiler is sipping the fuel, which significantly reduces the building's emissions of soot and carbon dioxide.

"I sleep better at night knowing that we're not polluting the earth as much," says Fred Seiden, a member of the co-op on East 7th Street and the driving force behind the fuel change.

Mr. Seiden's building joins an increasing number of New York buildings – perhaps numbering in the thousands by this winter – that are turning to biodiesel for heating. Starting next year, the city itself has plans to use a biodiesel blend to heat city-owned buildings. This marks a potential new role for the cleaner-burning fuel, which is currently used mainly as a blend with traditional diesel to cut emissions from trucks. If it helps New York clean up its air – third worst in the nation in terms of airborne particulate matter – other cities such as Boston and Philadelphia may shift over as well, experts say.

"New York is doing it first, and many other states are already looking at it," says John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance in Alexandria, Va. "If it goes smoothly, it will encourage further action."

By some estimates, New York consumes about 500 million gallons of fuel oil per year for heating – about 5.3 percent of total US consumption. If the city successfully moves to a 20 percent blend for biodiesel, that would account for 100 million gallons. Such an amount is currently equal to almost 30 percent of national biodiesel production, which has been doubling and tripling every year.

Biodiesel is typically made from soybeans or waste cooking oil in restaurants. It can be produced domestically. When it is blended with regular oil, it improves the viscosity, which helps burn the fuel more efficiently and with lower emissions.

A shift to biodiesel could significantly cut emissions of sulfur oxide and carbon dioxide, as well as particulate matter, experts of the fuel say. Some tests show a small increase in nitrogen oxide emissions. "The net effect is you are getting a break on three of four pollutants," says John Nettleton, a biodiesel expert at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York City. "There will be a major benefit in terms of public health."

New York's wider use of the fuel for heating will receive a major kick-start as the city implements Mayor Michael Bloomberg's environmental vision, called PlaNYC. The city will start to add a 5 percent biodiesel blend to the oil it buys for city-owned buildings next year. By 2012, it plans to have all its buildings using a 20 percent blend, called B20.

The shift will also vary the city's supplies.

"Fuel diversity is important," says Ariella Rosenberg Maron, who works in Mayor Bloomberg's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. "As we become more and more dependent on natural gas, we need to consider ways to mitigate the financial and other impacts of disruptions to our natural-gas supply, such as we experienced during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina."

The use of biodiesel could also get a major boost from legislation before the City Council, which would mandate that all fuel-oil users for heating buy a blend of B20 by 2013. The city has 1 million households that use heating oil. "This is an opportunity to go after some sizable clean-air gains," says council member James Gennaro (D) of Queens, who is sponsoring the bill.

Included in the legislation is a requirement that the biofuel come from a "sustainable" source. "We don't want people to clear-cut forests to grow soybeans," says Mr. Gennaro.

Potential suppliers of the fuel are already gearing up. Metro, a major supplier of fuel oil, has plans to build a 110 million-gallon refinery in Brooklyn for biodiesel. Tri-State Biodiesel is collecting the waste cooking oil from 700 restaurants, shipping it out of state for processing and reselling it in the city. The company has plans for a biodiesel refinery in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn that will process 3 million gallons a year.

"We will be able to expand [the refinery] if the market bears it," says Brent Baker, president of Tri-State. "We will also work with our national network to bring in barge loads of biodiesel for winter."

However, the nascent refineries were planned before Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) vetoed legislation that would have extended a bioheat tax credit for four years. He said the bill was passed by the Legislature outside the budget process. Without the tax credit, biodiesel can be more expensive than regular heating oil. "The tax credit did a great job of bridging the cost gap. Hopefully it has just been taken away temporarily," says Michael Woloz, a spokesman for the New York Oil Heating Association.

The loss of the tax credit was a surprise to Seiden at the co-op. He quickly got on the phone to call the politicians who sponsored the legislation. "I hope something can be worked out after it's reintroduced later this year," he says. "It would be heartbreaking to go back to the old polluting junk."

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