Diesel's Greener Bill of Health

How Far Would You Go For the Planet? Part Three


  • Volkswagen Golf

    Volkswagen Golf

    Libby Manly is new to Durham, North Carolina, and to the Volkswagen Golf TDI she bought this summer. | March 18, 2010

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Quick, think diesel. You might picture 18-wheeler semi-trucks, Vin (the actor) and reams of black smoke. But how about green? Sans the grime and cold weather choking remembered from the '70s, modern-day diesel boasts benefits that make it a viable contender for an eco medal. In Europe, where gasoline is even pricier than it is here, diesels account for up to half of all passenger cars, according to the Diesel Technology Forum. Increasingly, American buyers are catching on to technology advancements that have alleviated the messy diesel headaches and difficult cold winter ignitions of yesteryear. (See "Diesel Developments.")

In addition to reduced emissions, today's diesel fuel also takes less energy to produce and costs consumers less in federal taxes than its gasoline counterpart, so diesel owners can save a little money while they're helping to save the environment. Diesels' increased availability has opened the door for even "greener" fuel — biodiesel. Biodiesels range in their content and dependence on natural resources, from ethanol and petroleum blends to corn oil and recycled fast-food vegetable oil. Below are the stories of women who are willing to make diesel — both regular and biodiesel — their first choice.

Cleaning Up Their Act Libby Manly of Durham, North Carolina, bought a blue 2006 Volkswagen Golf TDI in August after transferring jobs from Boston, where she didn't own a car. Manly averages 45 miles per gallon.

"I wanted to get something that was fuel-efficient and not so reliant on petroleum," she said. "I was looking at hybrids and test-drove a Prius and an Insight. I felt that they were too gadgety for me. I didn't like the way they looked. They were too 'space age' for me."

Other diesel owners chose their cars to work with a lower budget.

Susan Beck of Belvedere, Illinois, was compelled by diesels' fuel-efficiency. She originally wanted to buy a gasoline-powered Jeep Liberty before she moved from Milwaukee to Illinois with her 2-year-old son, but she feared fuel costs would be high with a gasoline engine.

"I knew the diesel got much better fuel economy," she said. "I asked about it at an auto show in Milwaukee. I couldn't justify [the gas-powered version] when I was driving a 100 miles a day," she said.

Beck purchased her Jeep Liberty CRD in March and averages 25 to 27 miles per gallon. But her switch to diesel hasn't been painless. She's already had to replace the EGR valve twice, at 5,000 miles and 12,000 miles.

"In Wisconsin they had 'premier' diesel, but so far in Illinois we haven't found it, so we've been putting in additives," she said. "Each time it was out of service for three days. You have to have a diesel tech on staff. They're running codes and checking things and getting input from Chrysler engineering. We're wondering if the not-so-good grade of fuel is gunking up the valve."

Fortunately for Beck, the repairs fell under warranty.

Beck's husband, who owns a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, is the one who originally clued her in to the benefits of a diesel Liberty CRD. "We bring home receipts and monitor [mileage] regularly. He has a stick-shift wagon and he gets an average of 50 miles per gallon. Having the A/C on or off doesn't seem to affect it."

Overall, she says she is satisfied with the savings the Liberty has afforded her in exchange for owning a mom-friendly Jeep.

"It has a lot of pep," she said. "It has a lot of get-up-and-go and acceleration, which I like when you're crossing through a traffic light and you need to get going. It warms up rather quickly, even when it's cold."

Fried Green Fuel For devoted biodiesel owners, going the extra mile for the environment is part of the attraction. Most cars that run on petroleum diesel fuel will also run on biodiesel. Voice Director Khris Brown's 2001 Volkswagen Jetta GLS TDI has French fry containers attached to the inside side windows which read, "This car runs on vegetable oil."

She's serious. It does. So when she pulled up to a stoplight and the driver next to her leaned over and said, "Smells awesome," she just laughed.

Along with her fast-food props, Brown carries around comparative fuel charts for curious commuters. Brown bought her Jetta, which averages 45 to 50 miles per gallon, from an owner who had put 51,000 miles on it using biodiesel. He insisted on selling it only to someone who would also use biofuel.

Some biofuels can even be concocted at home. Recipes are spread across the Internet and have caught the fancy of industrious drivers. Brown doesn't make her own, but instead spends $3.49 per gallon to fill up at the all female-owned and -operated BioFuel Oasis (see below).

To pay for her Jetta, Brown had to replace her BMW 325i. Though she's not ecstatic about giving up the luxury nameplate, she feels the exchange is an important one.

"I notice the difference going from a six-cylinder to a four-cylinder," she admitted. "There is a big difference between a luxury car and the car of the people. Is the driving I'm going to do worth the [negative] impact on the environment?"

Brown's answer, clearly, is "no."

"In my Jetta, I feel like I'm invincible," she said. "I feel like Wonder Woman in my invisible plane."

The BioFuel Oasis Melissa Hardy is one of six women who own and operate BioFuel Oasis, a Berkeley station founded in 2003 that sells only biodiesel fuel. The business is a six-way partnership that is run with a community-based approach and alternative to gas stations.

"It's a necessity that needed to be provided in this area of the country where there are early adopters of technology," she said. Hardy owns a 2000 Volkswagen TDI Beetle and averages 45 miles per gallon running entirely on biofuel.

BioFuel Oasis' owners are concerned about both the environmental and political aspects of U.S. dependence on foreign oil to create fuel. Hardy and her co-owners feel hybrid power plants don't go far enough toward solving the problem.

"Hybrids still use petroleum, and that contribution to oil companies and to foreign oil and war is not an attractive alternative," Hardy said.

But biofuel takes work and isn't yet practical for every climate. When temperatures get cold, biofuel can become jellylike, similar to a bottle of oil-based salad dressing in the refrigerator. This can severely reduce engine efficiency. To avoid this, petroleum-based diesel fuel is mixed with biodiesel in a technique called splashing. Additionally, if biofuel is repeatedly spilled on the car's exterior during fill-up, it can wear away the paint. (See "Exploring Biodiesel.")

Drivers can alternate biofuel and regular diesel, but this often clogs the fuel filter. So BioFuel Oasis conducts filter changing workshops.

"If you switch petroleum diesel and regular biodiesel a lot, it can dissolve into chunks and clog the fuel filter. You can change the fuel filter for your car to avoid that," Hardy explained. To protect themselves from clogged fuel lines, BioFuel Oasis recommends that biodiesel users carry fuel filters in the car.

BioFuel Oasis' own diesel is almost entirely biofuel. In California, biofuel that contains low amounts of petroleum can only be sold to cars registered in a fleet. The Oasis now has 750 cars and trucks registered.

What makes biofuel most identifiable is its odor, which is not necessarily an unpleasant smell. For the women at BioFuel Oasis, that's one of its merits.

"I think it smells like barbeque, but some people say French fries and doughnuts. When people are pulling in and out, I oftentimes feel hungry," Hardy said.

While biodiesel is causing a stir among environmentally conscious diesel car owners, it does require more effort and expense on the part of the consumer. Until it's more widely available, higher fuel economy will continue to be the main attraction of owning a car with a diesel engine.

As manufacturers take an interest in pumping biodiesel themselves, it is possible that biodiesel will become a leader in the eco-friendly category. Jeep Liberty CRDs arrive from the factory running on a 5-percent biodiesel blend, and VW has approved the use of up to 20-percent biodiesel in its diesel cars while maintaining warranty coverage.

Decent Diesels With diesel engines showing improvement and emissions that give other environmental cars a run for their money, it's clear that smart power has many sources. Diesel emissions are vastly cleaner today than they were 10-20 years ago, but there's still much to be done in this area, and there's no guarantee that today's diesels will meet tightened 2007 emissions standards (at which point, diesels will have to meet the same standards as gasoline cars). Already, you can't buy new diesel cars in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York or Vermont for this reason. Part of the problem is the low-quality petroleum-based diesel sold in the U.S. (it's high in sulfur) — the fuel sold in Europe is much cleaner.

The following 2006 passenger vehicles have available diesel engines. Chevrolet Silverado 1500/1500HD/2500HD/3500Dodge Ram 2500/3500Ford F-250/F-350GMC Sierra 1500/1500HD/2500HD/3500/Hummer H1 Alpha/Jeep Liberty/Mercedes-Benz E-Class /Volkswagen Golf /Volkswagen Jetta /Volkswagen New Beetle/Volkswagen Touareg

See also: How Far Would You Go for the Planet? Introduction /Part One — Going "Au Naturel" With Honda's Civic GX /Part Two — The Prius Number Crunchers

More Articles on Diesels Hybrid and Diesel Roundup/Diesel Developments/Exploring Biodiesel

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