Campus & Community

Goodbye black smoke, hello green transit

4 min read

Biodiesel filling station opens up to fuel Harvard’s 25 thirsty diesel vehicles

Gentile with
Head mechanic Mark Gentile fills up one of Harvard’s buses at the new biodiesel fueling station in Allston. (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

The Harvard campus got a little greener last week, and it has nothing to do with the coming of spring. Rather, the University’s Transportation Services opened its own biodiesel filling station in Allston, allowing Harvard’s 25 diesel vehicles – shuttle buses, maintenance and mail trucks, and dining services’ vehicles – to run on cleaner-burning biodiesel. Harvard is the first Ivy League school to use biodiesel as the primary fuel for its entire diesel fleet.

The new on-site filling station, located at Transportation Services’ facility at 175 North Harvard St. in Allston, boasts an above-ground tank with state-of-the-art electronic dispensing and extensive safety features that holds 2,000 gallons of B20 biodiesel, a mixture of 20 percent soybean oil and 80 percent diesel.

Installing its own fueling station was the most efficient way for Harvard to switch to biodiesel. Although biodiesel is growing in popularity – from just four fleets of vehicles in the United States using the fuel in 1999 to more than 400 now – there remains only one retail pump in eastern Massachusetts, in Chelsea. By purchasing its fuel wholesale, the University will save approximately 15 cents per gallon with biodiesel over what it had paid at retail pumps for diesel.

But the move to biodiesel was first and foremost environmentally motivated, says David E. Harris Jr., general manager of transportation services. “We can realize a 20 percent reduction in total unburned hydrocarbons and a 12 percent reduction in carbon monoxide and particulate matter,” he says. “I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you were to stick your nose down to the pipe of a [biodiesel-burning] bus, it’s discernibly different. The black plume has gone away.”

Survey says … biodiesel!

Harvard chose biodiesel based on the research of a team of student interns led by David Thompson. A graduate student in Harvard’s Physics Department, Thompson and undergraduates Kelly Seary ’01 and John Hsu ’02 worked under the direction of University Operations Services (UOS) and the Harvard Green Campus Initiative in the summer of 2001 researching alternative fuel sources and evaluating their effectiveness for Harvard’s use.

“Biodiesel was the clear-cut winner,” says Thompson. “It produces a dramatic reduction in urban air pollutants, and from a greenhouse-gas perspective, it’s almost perfect.”

Thompson adds that the students’ research, which has been used as far away as New Zealand, “shattered some conventional wisdom” about alternative fuels by taking what he calls a “well-to-wheel” approach to its evaluation. Electricity, for instance, comes clean on the wheel, or tailpipe, end of the equation, but the production of electricity – the “well” – remains a polluting process. The big surprise, however, is that biodiesel trumped compressed natural gas (CNG), a favorite fuel of many environmentalists. While the CNG emits fewer carcinogens and other particulates that cause urban air pollution, switching to CNG results in a 20 percent increase in greenhouse gasses. “So you’re compromising the global health of the planet for urban health,” says Thompson.

Thompson and his team also spoke with managers of Harvard’s various vehicles, from police cars to snowplows, to assess their needs. While it proved impractical for some gasoline vehicles to alter their fuel source, biodiesel met the needs of the University’s diesel trucks and buses.

Cleaning the community, saving the planet

In addition to offering the greatest environmental impact of all alternative fuels, biodiesel proved the most cost-effective way for Harvard to green up its fleet. The fuel requires no alteration to vehicles, and can be mixed in the tank with traditional diesel. Because of the reduced per-gallon price, Harris estimates that Transportation Services will recoup its $60,000 investment in the filling station within five years, at which point Harvard will begin saving money with each gallon pumped.

Harvard’s commitment to biodiesel has less obvious benefits, too, says Harris. On-site fueling is not only convenient, but it could keep the University moving during a snowstorm or other emergency that might close retail filling stations. It will also have an impact on the University’s future vehicle purchases, swaying procurement toward diesel, rather than gasoline, vehicles.

And, Harris notes, the benefits of biodiesel spread far beyond the tailpipes of the University’s vehicles. “As Harvard’s campus expands into the Allston-Brighton and Watertown areas, we will have clean-burning transit vehicles running throughout the community,” he says.