GRAND RAPIDS — In the summer of 2003, Crystal Flash Energy became the first in the area to offer soy biodiesel both at the pump and for wholesale delivery. Sales of its soy biodiesel products have increased to some 30 million gallons per year.
“In the first couple of years, sales grew but not dramatically,” said Jeremy Whiddon, marketing executive with Crystal Flash. But in the last year or so, sales have really picked up.
“When you look at the overall growth rate of biodiesel — all forms of biodiesel, not just soy-based — the national annual growth rate has been about 200 percent. In the last couple of years, Michigan actually outpaced the national growth rate, with a 225 percent growth rate.”
CFE began selling soy biodiesel products exclusively last October, so these days 100 percent of its diesel fuels are blended with biodiesel. The company made the commitment to sell only biodiesel blends for a combination of reasons, said President Tom Fehsenfeld: Soy-based biodiesel has already been proven in the field, plus the fuel matches the performance of conventional diesel, and it’s “right” for the environment and for human health.
According to the National Biodiesel Board, biofuels produce fewer harmful emissions during production and combustion, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by 78 percent. Biodiesel also improves engine performance, because it adds lubricating properties to the fuel and results in reduced wear on the engine.
Diesel vehicle customers of CFE have their choice of blends of 5 percent or 20 percent soy biodiesel added to conventional diesel; home-heating customers receive a blend with 5 percent biodiesel. The company has only one gas station, at 1760 Alpine Ave. NW, but operates throughout Michigan through 10 different facilities.
CFE supplies soy biodiesel to public schools, construction companies, truck fleet owners and farmers. Biodiesel is especially popular with the farming community, Fehsenfeld said.
“As they see it, because they produce soy beans, they are using products that they produce themselves,” Fehsenfeld said. He further noted that the state of Michigan provides a 3-cent-per-gallon tax break for anyone who uses biodiesel blends on the road.
Fehsenfeld said that among on-road diesel vehicle operators, the B5 biodiesel blend sells better than the B20 blend.
“Fuel manufacturers are still being a little conservative about recommending biodiesel, so a number of customers are concerned that they shouldn’t use more than 5 percent,” Fehsenfeld noted. “That is changing, though. Cummins Inc. just completed a test where they ran vehicles over a million miles, and they actually got better performance out of the 20 percent soy diesel blends. Their recommendation is going to be changing to the 20 percent blend.”
CFE has been holding biodiesel seminars all over West Michigan in an attempt to educate the public on the benefits of using biofuel. The seminars double as a marketing opportunity for the company, he added. Attendance keeps growing; the seminars initially drew about 10 to 15 people per session, but now they’re drawing 30 to 50 people per session.
“I think biodiesel has become an accepted part of the energy mix these days, which is a big change,” Fehsenfeld said. “It’s not on the fringe anymore; it’s how people are fueling their trucks. It’s actually much more successful in the market right now than ethanol blends. Ethanol blends are only taking off in the markets where its use is mandated. I think the reason for that is that the cost of ethanol is somewhat out of line.”
Biodiesel consumption in the United States grew from 25 million gallons per year in 2004 to 300 million gallons by the end of 2006, according to the study “Biodiesel 2020: A Global Market Survey.” Biodiesel consumption is forecast to reach approximately 750 million gallons this year. The number of U.S. retail outlets for biodiesel grew more than threefold between 2005 and 2006, from 300 to more than 950, according to the survey. There are a lot of new biodiesel plants coming on line this year, Fehsenfeld pointed out.
Soybean farmer Larry Zahm has been using CFE’s soy biodiesel in his trucks and farm equipment for about four years, at blends of 20 percent or higher in the summer and 5 percent in the winter. Zahm said the biofuel is working very well.
“People call me up all the time and ask me about biodiesel,” Zahm noted.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses pure biodiesel, or B100, in its fleet of diesel-powered research vessels and small boats that are part of its Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. The vessels are active on the Great Lakes for nine to 11 months a year, said Marine Superintendent Dennis Donohue. When NOAA started the conversion over to biodiesel in 1999, virtually no one was using B100 in marine vessels, Donohue recalled. There was a learning curve, but so far the switch to biodiesel has been pretty much a trouble-free process, he noted.
“There were a few glitches and we had to reconfigure things, but for the most part it’s been a seamless change,” Donahue said. “There are probably another 50 to 60 vessels throughout the country that are now operating on B100. All of that can be related back to the efforts of our ships and certainly the work that Crystal Flash has done with us.”
Paul Vandenberg, owner of Vandenberg Excavating, used CFE’s soy biodiesel in his trucks, bulldozers and other related diesel engine equipment last summer and expects to do so again this summer.
“The fuel seems to have plenty of power, and the vehicles start better,” Vandenberg said. “The part I like is that it has a higher lubricity content, so it will lubricate the engine better,” Vandenberg said. “I would recommend it.”
Scott Roosien, owner of Roosien Excavating, said his company has been using the Crystal Flash soy biodiesel in its heavy equipment for the past year; the company began with B5 and is now using B20. He said the biofuel’s performance is doing as well or better than standard diesel fuel. He said he’d recommend it for a couple of reasons.
“It’s better for the country. If we can get out of the market for foreign oil, every little bit is going to help,” Roosien said.
Crystal Flash Energy is one of Michigan’s largest suppliers of energy-related products and services. The company also operates and sells electricity generated by wind-powered turbines, and recycles used motor oil, oil filters and antifreeze.
Fehsenfeld has spent more than 30 years in the petroleum distribution and recycling business. His great-great-grandfather, in fact, worked in the first Standard Oil Refinery in Cleveland, and someone from each generation of the family has worked in the petroleum industry since. Fehsenfeld’s father founded Crystal Flash in 1930. Tom Fehsenfeld took over the helm of the family business in 1989. Over the past several years, he has worked to establish Crystal Flash Energy as a leader in renewable and recycled fuels for home heat, industrial, farm, commercial and municipal customers.