Now Appearing on Local Stages: Willie Nelson and Austin Biofuels

The Red-headed Stranger tries to cut down on smoke in the air. The bad kind, that is.

Willie fuels up his tour bus with his own BioWillie 
fuel, a soy-based diesel.
Willie fuels up his tour bus with his own "BioWillie" fuel, a soy-based diesel. (Photo By Paul Galland)

Austin music icon Willie Nelson has entered the alternative-fuels arena, with the introduction last week of his new partnership, Willie Nelson Biodiesel (aka "BioWillie"), which plans to market the soy-based fuel at truck stops and convenience stores statewide and beyond. Country music's grandaddy of progressivism, a longtime champion of American agriculture, said he hopes his efforts will "put five million farmers back on the land growing fuel and keep us from having to start wars for oil." But the interest in alternative fuels is more than just a political statement or a pop culture fashion trend; substantive designs for community-based, sustainable fuel solutions are now in the Austin air, thanks in part to Nelson's local supplier, Austin Biofuels.

Nelson's star power was enough to attract CBS News anchor Dan Rather to his Luck Texas ranch outside Spicewood, where the singer ceremonially filled up his tour bus with biodiesel from a brand new 500-gallon tank installed and serviced by Austin Biofuels. In support of the venture, Nelson recently toured D.C. with his friend Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, contacting dozens of Congress members to elicit support for a biodiesel bill Kucinich plans to reintroduce this session.

With more and more petroleum experts predicting a peak in global oil production within this decade, policy makers are paying closer attention to renewable domestic fuels. Nationally, biodiesel is benefiting from a federal tax credit for alternative fuels reinstated late last year. Kurt Lyell, Austin Biofuel's fleet sales director, says savings from the measure will be fully effective by April, bringing biodiesel blends (currently at $3.40 a gallon) within a dollar or less of conventional petroleum diesel. In a presentation to Austin's Resource Management Commission, Austin Biofuels suggested that, in keeping with the city's ambitious goals for encouraging renewable energy, the city should include transportation fuels in its green planning, utilizing biodiesel in city fleets.

City Council Member Brewster McCracken, who helped initiate the city's plug-in hybrid vehicle study now in progress, sees city use of biodiesel as a logical outgrowth of recent progress with sustainable transportation. "We need a renewable fuel to bridge the gap to the hydrogen fuel cell, and biodiesel offers a lot more promise than other alternatives," McCracken said. "Anything we can do to switch to alternative fuels is all in our favor," said Austin Resource Management Commissioner John Hoffner. By helping to reduce emissions, he said, biodiesel could keep Austin out of the nonattainment category of federal air quality laws (a tightrope we're currently walking), while reducing our dependence on foreign oil. "It's also great to develop a homegrown, Austin-based startup," he added.

ABF marketing and logistics coordinator Jeff Plowman says, "We want to supply Austin with fuel using its own resources." ABF already makes biodiesel using waste oil from restaurant grease traps, but can't yet sell the homemade product due to prohibitive licensing costs. Instead, they currently distribute biodiesel from the San Antonio-based Texas Envirofuels. Whether biodiesel is derived from pure soybeans or from recycled restaurant grease, glycerin must be chemically removed from the oil for the fuel to combust properly in standard diesel engines. ABF is laying the groundwork for plans to build a production facility at its Southeast Austin site. "With community-based biodiesel you're able to control quality, you don't have to worry about wide-range transportation and logistics, and you can interact with end users," Plowman said. "Best of all, the fuel revenue and sales-tax dollars stay in the community."

Although biodiesel boasts huge reductions of nearly all polluting emissions over conventional petroleum diesel and has better lubricating properties – and fumes that smell like french fries – it's not without its own environmental side effects. "There are slight increases in NOx, the most important species in air quality," said UT Mechanical Engineering Professor Matt Hall. NOx (nitrogen oxide) is a contributing factor in the formation of smog and ozone. Hall also noted the great expense involved in processing biodiesel, saying, "You can only make so much of it for a given cost," which he said translates to its current high price. But come springtime, when ABF can pass along tax-incentive-based pricing relief, Lyell said, he expects 2005 sales to grow to 50,000 gallons from 10,000 in 2004, which he hopes will generate the capital to build a biodiesel plant.

Given the limited number of diesel engines in use, and the fuel's inevitable if lesser emissions, biodiesel certainly can't resolve all the U.S. pollution and fuel supply problems. Plowman describes biodiesel as not a comprehensive solution, "but a way to reduce point source emissions today, putting to use lots of underutilized farmland and helping farmers that could benefit from a cash crop." He says NOx is biodiesel's Achilles heel, but added, "I'll bet one day's worth of fires in Iraq puts out more NOx than all biodiesel emissions combined."


More info on Willie Nelson's biodiesel project can be found at www.wnbiodiesel.com, and biodiesel in general at www.biodiesel.org. Austin Biofuels (www.austinbiofuels.com), at 10012 Old Lockhart Rd., sells biofuels to the public on Wednesdays.

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