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Greening the Fleet


Medina, Minn. – Residents of Minnesota’s most populous county may soon notice something missing – the unpleasant smell of diesel exhaust.

Hennepin County is one of the first local governments in the United States to switch from diesel fuel to a biodiesel blend in all its diesel-engine vehicles. The county’s 175-vehicle fleet of snow plows, ambulances, road maintenance equipment and a mobile forensic crime lab began running on the renewable fuel in September.

The county is committed to green energy, says Mike Opat, county board chair. “We plan to use 368,000 gallons of 5-percent, biodiesel-blended fuel during the next year.”

The state’s air quality is on a downward slide, says Tim Gerlach of the American Lung Association and a member of Minnesota’s Biodiesel Task Force. “For every 10-micron/cubic meter increase in (emission) particulates, we can expect an 8 percent increase in the lung cancer death rate,” Gerlach says, citing research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, March 6, 2002. And motorists now drive twice the miles they did 20 years ago.

“Motorized vehicles remain the single largest source of air pollution in the state,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Gerlach says. “The use of B-5 (a five percent biodiesel blend) is a great step in reducing emissions and improving air quality.”

Biodiesel, which can be produced from vegetable oil or recycled greases, reduces tailpipe and particulate emissions even when blended with petroleum diesel in small percentages.

Hennepin County’s biodiesel is provided by Lubrication Technologies, Inc. of Golden Valley, Minn. through the county’s cooperative purchasing agreement. Washington County and the cities of Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park can also buy biodiesel under a collective, competitive bidding process.

“The cooperative bid process will help other urban and suburban fleets get biodiesel and get it at a good price,” Gerlach says.

Although biodiesel may cost pennies more per gallon than petroleum, county transportation department officials have seen enough reduction in engine wear and overall performance to justify the switch. After monitoring costs, the county will “gevaluate expanding our use of up to a 20-percent blend,” Opat says.

Besides its biodiesel fleet, Hennepin County operates five hybrid electric vehicles and 75 flexible-fuel vehicles that run on E85, a clean-burning fuel blended with 85 percent ethanol.

Hennepin County is “gleading by example,” says County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Greening the fleet not only improves the environment, it creates “a cleaner, safer working environment for our employees.”

AURI, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Minnesota soybean growers started investigating biodiesel in 1990. “Now, 14 years later, we are seeing it used in fleets, in school buses and by the military,” says Ron
Jacobsen, a Wells, Minn. farmer and president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.

AURI scientist Max Norris says the Hennepin County conversion is just a start. “We have an industry that is beginning to snowball.”

“It takes Mother Nature 250 million years to replace fossil fuels,” Jacobsen adds. “It will take Minnesota producers seven months.”