Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In pursuit of the ?Greasy Spoon?

Company seeks to convert school bus fleet to biodiesel

Express Staff Writer

Earth Synergy founder and president Wendy Pabich is working to make the Wood River Valley a cleaner and greener place. Photo by Trevor Schubert

"Be the change you wish to see in the world," said Mahatma Gandhi more than a half-century ago. Now it's the mission statement a Hailey company is employing today.

Earth Synergy Inc., a tax-exempt, charitable organization (status pending), has been formed to promote sustainable living throughout the Wood River Valley. Its latest project is aimed at converting all buses in the Blaine County School District to biodiesel fuel, an altered form of vegetable oil that can be used in any vehicle that runs on diesel. Biodiesel produces substantially less toxic emissions than traditional petroleum-based fuel.

"We met with the school district a few weeks ago, and they were really excited to partner with us," said Wendy Pabich, founder and president of Earth Synergy.

Pabich holds a doctorate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in environmental engineering and is trained as a biochemist, hydrologist and urban planner. She has taught for MIT and the Sierra Institute, and is an advisor for the Wild Gift, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a deep wilderness experience while supporting self-designed leadership projects for outstanding youths.

The project to reduce emissions of Blaine County school buses and to reduce children's exposure to harmful pollution is called "Greasy Spoon" and will begin one bus at a time.

"The plan is to start with one school bus as a demonstration project," to show this is feasible and to work out whatever kinks may arise, Pabich said.

Three years ago, the school district drew up a resolution aimed at converting buses to biodiesel but ran into liability issues shortly after it was drafted.

"They can't have a processing plant in the bus barn," and as it stands, "suppliers can't or won't supply the school district with biodiesel," Pabich said.

If there were a viable source of biodiesel in the area, the school district would not likely be the only agency switching to alternative fuels.

"The Forest Service and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) have to run their fleet on biodiesel," when it is practical and reasonable in cost, Pabich said.

United Diesel in Hailey is the only supplier in the Wood River Valley and it alone doesn't have a large enough supply on hand to provide for the school district, not to mention the Forest Service and BLM. Carl Browning, manager of United Diesel, said his facility could hold, at most, 700 gallons of biodiesel.

"Over the summer, we sold a few thousand gallons of biodiesel, but once the temperature drops below 40 degrees we have no way of storing it," Browning said.

The largest logistical problem facing Earth Synergy and the school district is the fact that pure biodiesel congeals in cold weather, forming a near solid solution that doesn't work in engines.

Heaters that keep the fuel warm before the engine starts are a possible solution, Pabich said.

Josh Solly, a member of Earth Synergy's board of directors and the founder of Log Restoration Systems, a company providing environmentally sound building techniques and materials, has found another potential solution. Solly installed a second fuel tank attached to the bottom of his suburban. Once the car is started on regular diesel and the engine reaches a temperature of 130 degrees, he flips a switch and runs the engine on vegetable oil for the remainder of the drive.

A third option is to run engines on B20, a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum-based diesel. B20 has been shown to work better in cold weather conditions than B100, or pure biodiesel, but still has problems in sub-freezing conditions.

According to Dick Larsen, former public information officer for the Idaho Department of Water Resources and biodiesel researcher, running an engine on B20 reduces harmful carbon monoxide emissions by 12 to 13 percent, unburned hydrocarbons by 11 percent, particulate matter by 13 to 20 percent, air toxics by 12 to 20 percent and sulfur emissions by 20 percent. The best part is that running on B20 requires no modification to a diesel engine.

In its purest form biodiesel releases 95 percent fewer hydrocarbons, 50 percent less carbon monoxide and 30 percent less particulate matter.

"B20 cleans out diesel engines," Pabich said. "So you may need to change your fuel filter when you first start to run on biodiesel."

Besides the environmental benefits, running on B20 or B100 reduces America's dependence on foreign oil, said Larsen. "Twenty gallons of B20 saves 3 gallons of imported crude. Idaho alone burns 360 million gallons of diesel a year. That's a potential savings of 54 million gallons of imported crude oil," Larsen said.

According to Pabich, there has been a steady and substantial shift when it comes to the environmental consciousness of the nation.

Over the past couple of years, "I have had several meetings with corporate businessmen where I am the one female scientist of a different generation, and an environmentalist, whom they usually want nothing to do with. And they want to hear what I have to say," Pabich said. "There is a tangible change occurring."

It is unclear exactly what is sparking the collective change in attitude. It may be the rising cost of gas, the increasing signs of global warming, the current conflicts in the oil-rich Middle East, or a combination of all three. What is certain is that mainstream science and mainstream media are finally on board, Pabich said.

In the Wood River Valley, "The response we've gotten (to all our projects) is great," Pabich said. "We have generated all this interest. I hope we can keep the momentum going."

At the moment, money is still the largest stumbling block for Earth Synergy to overcome. To learn more, go to or e-mail Pabich at

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