Fueling Growth Of a Humble Crop

Larry Jarboe, who thinks
Larry Jarboe, who thinks "America needs to pull together to become energy-independent," has transitioned from an electric bicycle and riding lawnmower to a solar-powered electric car. (Jonathan Newton - Twp)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Larry Jarboe's quest for energy independence began years ago in the mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys, with a 15-foot canoe he bought for $75 at Sears. He installed an electric trolling motor to chase lobsters and realized along the way that "it was a really great way to live and very clean."

After that came the homemade electric riding lawnmower, the solar-powered electric Toyota MR2 with lightning bolt on the side (known as the "Green Hornet"), the electric bicycle and the wood-and-gas-powered sawmill. Now Jarboe, a Republican St. Mary's County commissioner, has laid his hopes on a hard vegetable the size of a pencil eraser grown throughout Southern Maryland: the soybean.

Already the great utility player of the vegetable league -- used in soaps, foams and salad dressing -- the soybean is also the key ingredient for the burgeoning biodiesel fuel industry. Thanks to hefty petroleum prices, a tax incentive that began this year and a desire for cleaner-burning alternative fuels, biodiesel plants are popping up across the country.

In such rural areas as Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, where farming is slowly waning, some officials are hoping that the biodiesel market for soybeans might help halt that slide.

In St. Mary's, Jarboe has held public forums advocating biodiesel and is working to install a 1,000-gallon biodiesel tank for county-owned vehicles.

"I think America needs to pull together to become energy-independent," Jarboe said. "And anything we could do to help farmers generate more income from their crops would be a good thing."

But widespread biodiesel use is still hindered by its price: Pure biodiesel can cost 50 cents more per gallon than regular diesel.

While still a fraction of petroleum output, the National Biodiesel Board expects that 75 million gallons of biodiesel -- which also can be made from other plant products and used cooking oils -- will be produced nationwide this year. That is three times the amount made last year and 38 times the production in 2000. In September, Minnesota became the first state to require that all diesel sold in the state be mixed with at least 2 percent biodiesel.

Around Washington, local governments and agencies are increasingly using the vegetable product. More than 400 large trucks and school buses in Arlington County use biodiesel, as do a number of National Park Service vehicles. President Bush visited Virginia Biodiesel Refineries in West Point, Va., in May, touting the fuel as "one of our nation's most promising alternative fuel sources."

Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore, the largest producer of soybeans in the state, this year converted its entire 180-vehicle diesel fleet, including 20 school buses, to a 20 percent blend of biodiesel. The county received a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to pay for the difference in cost between biodiesel and regular diesel.

"We're an agricultural, rural community," said James Wood, the regional recycling coordinator for the mid-shore region. "It's a natural fit for us."

Wood said he was first drawn to the product because of its cleaner-burning properties, with reduced levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur and the sooty particulate matter. It is also biodegradable and, as many advocates proclaim, "less toxic than table salt." At one of Jarboe's recent biodiesel forums, a true believer threatened to drink a bottle of 100 percent biodiesel to demonstrate its safety.

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