Biodiesel BINGO (Part IV): Pennsylvania to New York

Wednesday, November 8th

I fill up the brae bio-bus fuel tank at Salem Oil near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and replenish one of the 5-gallon on-board containers. The price per gallon for this animal fat/soy blend is $3.50. Already the bio-bus sounds and smells better as I head along Route 14 to Route 18 in Pennsylvania.

Along the way, I buy first-harvest apples and still-sweet cream and sugar corn at a roadside farmer’s market. Across the street, a massive harvester cuts the rim of a corn field. I pass numerous road signs with the image of a horse and buggy. On this trip, I have seen an Amish horse and buggy ‘parked’ at a store near the highway. I have passed an Amish farmer muscling in his two-by draft horses, the family laundry hanging out to dry next to a farmhouse. I have heard the click-clack, clack-click of hooves on pavement and harnessed the image of a horse and buggy, in the distance, flickering through pines and maples. I see a kind of simplicity at work, and I wonder, turning back to my tons of steel, is it so much to ask of the rest of us to slow down, to pay attention to the Earth, to our health?

The next morning, departing from the Brookdale RV campsite in Meadsville, Pennsylvania, the bio-bus turns over. She goes a few feet…and she goes kaput. I hope the problem is a long-anticipated event: a clogged fuel filter due to the solvent properties of biodiesel. It’s Sunday. It’s the last day of operations for the campsite. Providence the inevitable happened in a safe place. Providence that Tim Conlin, owner of the Brookdale RV Camp, knows a lot about engines: Ford diesel engines, specifically, which are, essentially, the same as the brae bio-bus International engine. Tim is a former natural gas utility general manager who left his utility job to purchase this campsite, to be his own boss. We exchange utility management horror stories in the several hours we work on the bus.

Tim tows the bus with his John Deere tractor (which pulls the bus and the towed car while in idle). We drive to town to pick up a T444E fuel filter, replace the filter, add some PowerSave, and, upon the recommendation of a diesel mechanic, Dale, we add three gallons of kerosene, in the event the problem is gelling of the biodiesel. (The fuel is liquid at the fuel filter, so I am not convinced the problem is gelling.) When Tim removes the filter top, he finds it loose. Perhaps the problem is not a clogged filter (though it is very dirty!) but air in the filter. Perhaps it is both. When we finish, the brae bio-bus does not turn over; she clangs, loudly. My heart sinks. Tim tracks down Dale for advice. I turned the key a few more times, hearing a familiar noise. Once primed – which is Dale’s diagnosis – she turns over. The bus runs better than ever: she charges up hills. I owe Tim and Robyn Conlin many thanks for getting me through it all, on one of their busiest days of the season.

I head north into New York and stop at a Seneca-Iroquois, tribal-owned filling station. The diesel costs $2.53, and the pumps carry the signage about the newly-mandated low-sulfur diesel. The clerk can tell me nothing about the diesel. She has never heard of biodiesel.

Along the way to Ithaca, there are sheep and dairy farms, and a pitch black Angus bull grazing in a field thick with green grass. I see the small farms that I did not see in Iowa, farms that grow everything from early tomatoes to the last cruciferous vegetables, clover and grass for hay, as well as corn and soybeans. At 45mph, I pass an Amish walking from his saw mill (the name on the mailbox is, appropriately, Miller). He takes in the bio-bus, kindly, as I do him.

I land in Ithaca late in the day, choosing a back road to avoid the serrated road that is I86. The bus has no “air riding” shocks, which has made at times for a cat-squawking, dog-shaking trip. Cruising in on Route 13, I see diesel sells for $2.89. That’s $.15 more than the price of B0 in Kickapoo, Illinois. It’s also the same price as the B100 in Kickapoo where B100 sells for a .$15 premium over B0.

It’s November 8th. I have been in Ithaca three weeks. Next stop, Maine. I am told Ithaca is a progressive town. It’s home to an Eco-Village, a green market, public recycling bins. It is also home to Cornell University where ecologist David Pimentel works. Pimentel and a professor at Berkeley conclude that biofuels from biomass (soybeans, corn, switchgrass) require more energy for their production than the energy they provide as a liquid fuel. As yet, I have found no biodiesel in Ithaca – not at the pumps, not through the biodiesel coop (which sells equipment and unprocessed fuel), not in the Pennysaver, not through a biodiesel outfit that I find online and asks if what I’ve been putting in my tank all these miles is actually biodiesel. Yes, I reply, it IS biodiesel.

Other goings on this week

I receive an announcement to attend a talk by Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack on “Energy Choices for the New Century.” Distributed by the Colorado University Law School and Western Resource Advocates, it says, “Iowa has become the number one state in the country for wind energy per capita; and has become the number one producer in the country for both ethanol and soy diesel. Ethanol production alone has increased in Iowa by almost 300% in the past five years. During Governor Vilsack’s two terms, energy generation capacity has increased 20% including the development of the country’s largest wind farm.” This is good news, but is hardly reflective of my search for biodiesel in Iowa.

I also receive an email from the Ed Cullen, the editor of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa, because I mention Storm Lake on this blog. Storm Lake is where my ancestors farmed. It’s also home of the country’s largest wind farm. Drats. I should have visited Storm Lake for that reason alone!

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