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March 27, 2008   Email to Friend 

Beans by the Busload
Debra Davis

Students from Goshen Elementary School prepare to board buses powered by fuel made from a blend of soybean oil.
Alabama soybean farmers are hoping a program started by the Pike County School System will spread to others around the state and help regenerate interest in growing soybeans. The Pike County Board of Education is the only school system in Alabama that runs biodiesel in all of its buses.

In addition to boosting the state's farm economy, school officials say the use of a blended, soy diesel fuel (B20) is better for the environment and healthier for students.

Mike Johnson, maintenance and transportation coordinator for the Pike County School System, began contemplating the change to B20 diesel after attending a workshop in Florence last year. While there, he met Mark Bentley, executive director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition, who was conducting seminars touting the benefits of B20 fuel - a blend of soy diesel and conventional diesel made from crude oil.

"I knew we were going to purchase some new buses and thought we should look at any way we could improve their performance and save money," Johnson said. "I brought the literature home, read it and then took it to Tom Hicks, director of operations for the school system. We were both convinced it was worth looking into."

Johnson said after comparing the price of the B20 and regular diesel, there wasn't much difference, but there are indirect savings he's already seeing since making the switch.

"The B20 burns cleaner and cooler and causes less wear on the engines," Johnson said. "That prolongs the life of our engines and reduces maintenance costs, and we know it's better for the environment. Plus, our fuel mileage has increased, especially in our older buses, from one-and-a-half to three miles per gallon in some cases."

Bus driver Jeff Allen, along with 39 others in Pike County, transport 1,760 students an average of 1,735 miles each school day. He said the B20 fuel provides more horsepower for the bus he drives, and he's noticed a marked decrease in emissions - particularly when the buses are idling while loading and unloading, which is healthier for the students and drivers. Hicks said he believes the switch to B20 can work in any size school system.

"If it works for our system, I think it could work anywhere," Hicks said. "I'd like to see every school system in the state move to biodiesel because of cleaner air and better service." Hicks could get his wish if a resolution introduced in the Alabama Legislature is adopted. The legislation encourages all school systems to switch to B20 fuel in their buses.

That could give a boost to Alabama farmers, said Steve Guy, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation Soybean Division. "The number of soybean acres grown in Alabama had been decreasing for the past decade, but last year it began inching back up," Guy said. "The use of B20 fuels is definitely a way to increase market demand for soybeans, which could translate to more money for farmers. Fortunately, our state has the climate and soil type to produce soybeans, and varieties of soybeans and production techniques have improved. If we have adequate rainfall or use irrigation, we can produce good quality soybeans with high yields."

The United Soybean Board, using producers' checkoff funds, awarded a grant to the Alabama Soybean Producers and the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition to conduct a series of workshops in Alabama for school transportation managers and mechanics. There will be five workshops held around the state this year to demonstrate the benefits of using B20 like those experienced in Pike County.

Guy said while blended fuel won't completely eliminate dependency on foreign oil, it does reduce it, and it's better for the environment.

"Combine that with the savings on engine wear and maintenance and it's a good investment," he said.

For more information about the workshops, contact Bentley at (205) 402-2755 or email him at Mark@AlabamaCleanFuels.org.


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