Demand for alternative fuel evident on South Whidbey

Marty Winn, owner of McQueen’s Whidbey Marine & Auto, holds a nozzle that could distribute biodiesel in the future.  - Stephen Mercer
Marty Winn, owner of McQueen’s Whidbey Marine & Auto, holds a nozzle that could distribute biodiesel in the future.
— image credit: Stephen Mercer

It might strike drivers a little odd when stuck in traffic that they smell an odor similar to popcorn emitting from the diesel truck in front of them.

Chances are the smell came from biodiesel fuel provided by Island Clean Energy, a new part-time business run by South Whidbey residents Paul Mathews and Ryan Goodman in Langley.

Mathews and Goodman sell biodiesel from several 275 gallon polyethylene containers sitting on a pallet on the bed of a Chevrolet One Ton Flat Bed truck refurbished for biodiesel disbursement. Customers use an electric pump with a hose and nozzle to pump the biodiesel. Mathews said they deliver biodiesel for large orders, as well.

Produced mainly from refined vegetable oil, biodiesel reduces pollution and emits a more pleasant smell than petroleum diesel, Mathews said. It runs better, more quietly and lasts longer. It also comes from vegetable oil, a renewable substance made in America.

“It makes so much sense for someone who cares about the environment or doesn’t like the smell of diesel,” he said.

And one customer pointed out it reduces reliance on Middle East oil, which he said mainly led to America’s involvement in wars.

“Not being reliant on foreign oil has a good feeling to it,” Dean Enell said. But, not being reliant on diesel does not come cheap. Enell said he paid $3.85 a gallon for biodiesel Wednesday. Diesel costs about $2.70.

Still, South Whidbey residents seem to want the product. Mathews said few people know about their service, yet the demand outweighs what they can handle.

Marty Winn, owner of McQueen’s Whidbey Marine & Auto in Freeland, said an average of two people a week ask for biodiesel. Because of the demand, he said he might supply biodiesel in one of his fuel pumps sometime in the future. To provide an open pump, Winn said he might install new pumps which dispense several types of gasoline as part of a possible large retrofit of his station. That will open up a pump, which he might then supply biodiesel, petroleum or another product.

The high biodiesel prices, Winn said, make selling biodiesel a difficult decision. But rising demand among consumers may entice larger manufacturing of the product and bring the price down.

To fill up their containers, Mathews and Goodman drive to Tacoma to pick up the biodiesel from a manufacturer there. They then drive the truck back to Mathews’ Fox Spit Road home.

Mathews said they plan to take find a location on South Whidbey to park the truck and distribute the biodiesel. Using the honor system, customers may fill up with biodiesel, write down the total and pay with credit.

South Whidbey residents will then receive the same type of facilities used by biodiesel providers in Seattle and elsewhere, Mathews said.

“But exclusively for South Whidbey,” he said.

In addition, Mathews and Goodman plan to switch manufacturers and buy biodiesel from a Seattle distributor, hopefully at a lower price. Mathews said they paid their Tacoma manufacturer $3.40 a gallon for the last biodiesel. Because of the manufacturer’s cost, marking up the price more prevents customers from buying the biodiesel, he said. The low markup prevents any possibility of a profit, as well, and both Mathews and Goodman work other jobs to make ends meet.

The low profits have not dissuaded them from some ambitious future goals to boost business.

Mathews said plans are underway to spend about $30,000 in infrastructure over the next two years if they decide not to build refining facilities to manufacture biodiesel. If they build refining facilities, the cost rises to between $65,000 and $70,000.

To help alleviate the costs for biodiesel providers, bills are now in the state legislature to provide tax breaks for people who pay for machinery and equipment to disperse alternative fuel. Sales tax and the cost of constructing, cleaning, altering and repairing equipment are some components of the bills in the works, as well.

Additionally, President George W. Bush signed the American Jobs Creation Act into law in 2004. The act provides federal tax incentives for biodiesel manufacturers, providers and users.

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