Should Vancouver be betting on biodiesel?

Peter Brown believes the city is primed to produce biofuel

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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With the earnestness of a missionary, Peter Brown will proselytize about the eco-friendliness of biodiesel and methane digesters — or extol their virtues with the already converted. In his mind, Vancouver could be to the green-energy movement what the San Francisco Bay Area was to the digital revolution, if only people would see the vision and take it seriously.

“If you look at Silicon Valley, when they started they had a semiconductor — a soldered piece of silicon on a piece of plastic. Now look at how far they’ve taken that stuff,” he said. “I don’t think we know how far the renewable fuels world can go.”

Brown thinks Vancouver is the right place on the right coast in the right moment in time to push biodiesel forward. He’s got an ambitious plan to buy fuel crops from farmers in the Columbia River Basin, convert them into biodiesel at a facility in Vancouver and then put the fuel on the market — but he needs the right people to buy in.

Biodiesel is a renewable, biodegradable fuel created from vegetable oils, animal fats or used restaurant grease. It’s cleaner to produce and cleaner burning than its petroleum-based counterpart.

Rudolf Diesel originally patented his namesake engine to run on coal dust. Then, at the Paris World Fair of 1900, he presented an engine that ran on peanut oil. About a decade later, he declared that vegetable oil would become as important as crude oil in the future.

Brown had a decades-long career in public relations and marketing, selling and promoting nuclear power plants and later high-tech products that took him around Europe and the Americas.

In the early aughts, he was living in Silicon Valley with a long list of professional overseas contacts and the ability to speak five languages. He staked out on his own as a communications consultant to help American companies sell their biodiesel equipment in European markets.

“Things were slow when I went out on my own,” he said. “I wanted to sell the stuff but I was essentially selling articles. The whole of renewables went into a terrible slump. I believe it’s coming out of it.”

Brown moved to Vancouver a few years ago just as the drama began to blow up surrounding the Port of Vancouver and its lease to the companies behind the Vancouver Energy oil terminal. He stands squarely in the anti-terminal crowd, but he believes the city’s assets, which made it appealing to the fossil fuels industry — its strong rail, highway and marine shipping infrastructure — also fit well for a biofuels facility.

He dreams of building a biodiesel facility at the Port of Vancouver. Following that, he wants to build and install methane digesters to process human and animal waste into electricity and combustible gas for customers around the region.

Whether those ideas can happen depends on his ability to find people who will take him seriously enough to give him the capital he needs to get his idea off the ground. He believes it’ll take about $300,000 up front to go through the preliminary studies on his roughly $22 million idea.

According to S&P Global, about 8.8 billion gallons of biodiesel were consumed in 2016, and that figure is expected to rise 14 percent by 2020. Most of the world’s biodiesel is produced and consumed in Europe, but the market growth is being driven by countries in South America and Asia, as well as the United States.

In the U.S., the biodiesel industry is growing. Last year, American refiners produced 2.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, up from 1 billion gallons produced in 2011.

Tyson Keever is CEO and co-founder of SeQuential, a Portland-based company that produces about 8 million gallons of biodiesel annually. But when it started in 2002, selling its product required something of an educational campaign.

“Almost every conversation we had was about what we do,” he said. “We’d say ‘biodiesel,’ they’d say ‘bio-what?’ That lasted for the first five to six years.”

Keever said since its early days, biodiesel has become better known and the industry has matured into one that delivers a product that meets strict fuel standards. Also, some organizations have embraced blended diesel or biodiesel exclusively at their service stations and in their fleets.

A major driving component behind the growth of domestic biodiesel production has been state adoptions of low-carbon and renewable fuel standards.

Oregon’s renewable fuel standard, for example, mandates a 5 percent blend of biodiesel sold at the pump.

Keever said those policies have been “very critical” to the development of the biodiesel industry in Oregon, and he expects the same for other states, as well.

Washington requires a 2 percent biodiesel blend be sold at the pump. But Keever said a stronger standard will be required to make a meaningful impact.

“There’s incentives for Washington biodiesel producers federally, but that fuel will probably leave that state,” he said. “Still, people in Vancouver will get the benefit of new jobs.”

Brown is optimistic and committed to his ideas. He believes that people are taking pollution woes to heart, and soon there is going to be more state and federal mandates to include biodiesel.

“Eventually, even in America, they’re going to say ‘diesel is filthy. We have to cut it with this biodiesel stuff,'” he said. “They’re going to start forcing it on us.”

But he hopes to have his biodiesel operation up and running before that happens.