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April 04, 2006
Utility's biodiesel fleet promotes New Mexico clean energy goal

PNM, the state's largest power provider, purchased more than 100,000 gallons of B20 biodiesel blend from Blue Sun Biodiesel in 2005, and expects to use about 240,000 gallons annually starting this year. The cleaner burning, alternative fuel is powering the company's Albuquerque and Santa Fe diesel-powered fleets, including medium duty trucks, backhoes, compressors and welder units.

In a press release, PNM Vice President of Operations Eddie Padilla explained, "Biodiesel may offer a way for our nation to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, and we want to do our part to help increase the market for this fuel."

More demand creates more availability

Increasing the local market for the cleaner-burning diesel alternative was one of several motivations for the switch, PNM Spokesperson Jeff Buell added. "We hope that other large diesel fleets will consider using this fuel, and that will lead to a better equation for distributors," he said.

So far, biodiesel is only available around the major metro areas of the large and sparsely populated state. That is why only 240 vehicles, or about 57 percent of PNM's fleet, use it. "A lot of our service areas are remotely located and have only four or five cars," Buell said. "You need a certain population density to get the economy of scale. Until biodiesel becomes more available in New Mexico, that won't change."

There are signs that the change has begun, at least in the northern part of the state. Amigo Mart, the New Mexico distributor for Colorado-based Blue Sun, already has two retail biodiesel pumps in Santa Fe and two more in Taos. More pumps are planned for Albuquerque later this year.

Easy transition, many benefits

The delivery infrastructure—the actual pumps—are not the obstacle for biodiesel in the same way that it is for hydrogen, for example. Biodiesel can run through a standard diesel pump, "As long as the system is cleaned first and properly maintained," said Blue Sun President Jeff Probst. "When you don't have that maintenance, you have big problems, and mechanics will usually blame the new fuel."

That was not a problem at PNM. Probst recalled that he only got halfway through his presentation to the utility before a fleet supervisor interrupted him. He explained to Probst that he owned a Ford Powerstroke 350 diesel pick up truck, and Blue Sun was his fuel of choice. It was the fleet supervisor, in fact, who had first proposed the product to PNM.

The practical benefits of using biodiesel were another critical factor in PNM's decision to switch. The alternative fuel offers better mileage and higher lubricity, which can reduce wear and tear on engines. The cost is about nine to 15 cents more than diesel per gallon, "But we expect fuel efficiency and longer engine life to mitigate some of the cost," said Buell. "And there is no telling where conventional fuel prices are headed, either. That could definitely affect the equation."

Utility works with state on energy plan

PNM shares its concerns about the cost of conventional fuel, both environmental and economic, with the state government.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has an ambitious program to develop the state's renewable energy resources. In August, he issued an executive order (pdf) requiring state agencies to obtain 15 percent of their fuel from renewable fuels, such as biomass, by the year 2010. The executive order also set up a structure for the state’s vehicle acquisitions so that they comply with the existing law.

Utility representatives served on the governor's task force on biofuels, and on other committees looking at renewable energy and climate change. "We see the utility as a resource for energy expertise and we take our leadership role very seriously," Buell stated.

By joining the state to put its buying power behind biofuels, PNM is leading the way to cleaner air and a stronger economy. "We're interested in the economic development angle, too," said Buell. "Some oilseed crops could potentially grow in New Mexico."

For example, Blue Sun has had a lot of success with mustard seed in Oklahoma, an arid, lower-altitude region similar to eastern New Mexico. "Developing different products for different geographies is a central part of Blue Sun's business," said Probst, adding that product development takes time and support.

With enthusiastic supporters like PNM and the state of New Mexico, the time for a biodiesel boom in the Land of Enchantment may be right around the corner.

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