A recent study of the feasibility of producing biodiesel in Maine poses a question for coastal communities: Will the marine industry and recreational boaters become willing to switch to biodiesel and use less petroleum-based fuel?

The study, conducted by a group of Maine businesses and organizations that want to promote the use of biodiesel fuel, concluded that the fuel could be produced in Southern Maine from waste vegetable oil obtained from restaurants in the area. But before biodiesel use becomes widespread, particularly in the marine sector, it must surmount a few hurdles.

“If it could be cheap and accessible and not be harmful to my engine, then it makes sense to me,” said Proctor Wells, fisherman from Phippsburg and owner of the TENACIOUS. “But I want to be convinced it won’t void the warranty of my $80,000 engine.”

Responding to Well’s first two concerns, cost and availability, will depend on many factors: whether Maine will be able to produce the fuel, whether the state will be able to acquire grants, tax relief or some sort of financial support to reduce the cost of producing biodiesel and therefore its cost to users; and whether a fuel distribution network can be developed for the marine community.

Presently, 100 percent biodiesel costs twice as much as standard diesel; a 50 percent mix would be about one and one-half times as expensive, and the more common B20, a mix of 20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petroleum-based diesel, much less.

Wells’ worries about his engine stem from the fact that biodiesel can eat away at rubber in the fuel system of older engines. Peter Arnold, Renewable Energy Pathways Coordinator at the Chewonki Foundation, a leader in making and using biodiesel in Maine, said that “Over time 100 percent biodiesel will degrade rubber, but at 20 percent, it doesn’t matter. The engine will wear out before the rubber degrades. With newer engines that have fuel lines of different materials this is not a problem.”

Arnold would like to work with a fishermen’s co-op that dispenses its own fuel to experiment with 20 percent biodiesel blend. “Then,” he said, “everyone would see that their engines didn’t fall out of their boats.” He wonders if the co-op might get a “green premium” for using the cleaner fuel and being a model for sustainability. “There might be a way to have a logo that lets people know the co-op is taking another step for sustainable harvesting,” he said.

John Foss, owner of the schooner AMERICAN EAGLE, berthed in Rockland, has been using biodiesel, from a B20 mix to 100 percent, in the schooner’s engine for three years. Because the AMERICAN EAGLE’s engine is an older model, Foss has gradually changed all the fuel hoses to biodiesel-resistant material. Since he uses only about 500 gallons a year, Foss is willing to pay extra to gain the benefits of biodiesel.

He likes using the alternative fuel because it is environmentally safer than petroleum-based diesel, is produced in America and could be produced in Maine, and its exhaust, which lacks the black cloud effect of standard diesel, has a more pleasant odor. Some people describe the smell as being like French fries or popcorn. Foss said it’s “a pleasant sharp odor.”

Foss and his clients especially appreciate a relief from the usual diesel exhaust when they are caught in a lull on a long voyage and need to rely on the engine for power. “You don’t want your vacation to be an ordeal,” he observed, and then recalled how in 1997 he and his wife stood in a haze of large and small boat exhaust while watching ceremonies celebrating the U.S.S. CONSTITUTION in Marblehead Harbor. “The air turned sort of a greenish gray from lots of boats and no wind,” he said. Studies focused on recreational marine use of biodiesel in other parts of the country have found that many boat owners are willing to deal with five-gallon containers of biodiesel to clean up their exhaust fumes.

Biodiesel is environmentally safer than standard diesel for several reasons. With biodiesel few particulates escape into the environment, whether water or air. Arnold said studies have shown that the mutagenic factor of 100 percent biodiesel is 90 percent less than petroleum-based diesel. In addition, biodiesel produces much less carbon monoxide and no sulphur dioxide. According to Arnold, even the B20 mixture results in a more-than-20 percent reduction of carbon monoxide and particulate matter.

Biodiesel is one way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It can be produced in the U.S., and therefore can lessen the nation’s dependence on imported fuels. It is a “climate neutral fuel,” and therefore can lower greenhouse emissions, because when the plants (usually soy or corn) it is made from are growing, they use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and balance the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when biodiesel is burned. Fossil fuels, when burned, add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere without the balancing effect.

Biodiesel is formulated from a renewable resource and its production in Maine would provide jobs. Norman Gridley, a project manager at Wright-Pierce, an engineering firm in Topsham, which conducted the feasibility study, said the next step towards building a plant to produce biodiesel in Maine is to develop business and financial plans and find investors for the project.

Biodiesel is touted for its strong cleaning action and increased lubricity for engines. Foss says he hasn’t noticed any loss of power, and that fuel consumption has remained the same. He did note that because 100 percent biodiesel has a high gel point, people who use biodiesel in winter have to use a mix.

The grain-based fuel is widely used in the Midwest, where most of the U.S. supply is currently produced, and long distance truckers have found that B20 provides compliance with emission laws without expensive conversion of equipment. Arnold said it is being used in several national parks and sensitive marine environments. Here in Maine, L.L. Bean and a few other businesses run their trucks with a mix of biodiesel obtained from Frontier Energy in China. Arnold has been producing enough to fuel vehicles and heat some buildings at Chewonki Foundation, and the Wiscasset School system is looking into using biodiesel for school buses. In August, Beth Nagusky, Gov. John Baldacci’s Director of Energy Independence and Security, announced at the Biodiesel Cross Country Relay in Freeport that the state anticipated using biodiesel blend to heat some government buildings this winter.

Arnold and others agree that incentives to use biodiesel will be a key factor in promoting its use in marine industry vessels like ferries and large fishing boats. “They are all cost sensitive,” he notes. “They’ll need some incentive to make the switch.”

Joe Payne, BayKeeper for Friends of Casco Bay, said the organization would like to push the use of biodiesel by the commercial marine sector. “It’s a terrific idea,” he said. “But for commercial use, the supply has to come first. It would be nice if the state ferry system could be a model project.”

Arnold hopes that the new climate change action plan to be formulated by the Department of Environmental Protection over the next year and a half will include incentives to promote use of biodiesel as part of its measures to foster use of alternative fuels. That, coupled with an in-state biodiesel production plant and distribution network, may provide the impetus for a widespread switchover in the marine and other sectors.

As Foss said, “It won’t happen over-night,” but to him, more widespread use of biodiesel would be an important way to “act locally, think globally.”

For further information, visit www.cytoculture.com, which includes the “Technical Handbook for Marine Biodiesel,” and the National Biodiesel Board site, www.nbb.org.