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 tiny 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.
The major market for soybeans in Maryland is now the poultry industry. Farmers sell their beans to Perdue Farms, which crushes them into meal, for chicken feed. A byproduct is soybean oil, most of which is sold to the food industry, said Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung, but a small but growing portion is sold to two biodiesel plants. Hot oil can be blended with ethanol and potash to make glycerin and biodiesel.
That is the basic recipe that James Warren, owner of the Cropper Oil Co. in Berlin, Md., on the Eastern Shore, plans to use in a biodiesel plant for which construction is to begin in January. Warren has been helped by federal tax incentives that lessen the cost of producing biodiesel, and the Worcester County Commissioners voted this month to change county zoning to allow such an operation. He plans initially to produce between 500,000 and 1 million gallons a year.
"The more demand for biodiesel, the more demand for soybeans, and that's going to help the profit off the beans," said Warren, who is also a soybean farmer. "I heard a lot of farmers talking about biodiesel . . . when the prices [of regular diesel] were going up so high and they were tired of it, and they were saying, 'I'd rather see somebody here get paid than some foreigner.' "
The biodiesel industry, in its nascent stage, still must overcome obstacles -- including but not limited to the higher cost -- before it attains widespread use. The average driver can purchase biodiesel at only a couple dozen gas stations in the region, for instance. In colder temperatures, it can become thick and sludge-like, especially the pure biodiesel. It also has solvent properties that, while capable of cleaning an engine, can result in plugged filters, Warren said.
"It's just taking off. I think it's going to be a niche product," said Michael Besche, president of Waldorf-based Besche Oil, which distributes diesel to about 50 service stations in Maryland and is considering distributing biodiesel. "When you start talking about billions and billions of gallons of diesel, and the amount of soybeans that would have to be grown to produce it, there are limits."
Still, Besche said, with mandates from such large institutions as the Navy to use alternative fuels, there may be a good market in the area. Also, since the permissible sulfur content of regular diesel is set to be massively reduced next year, biodiesel -- with no sulfur -- could be attractive as a blend, he said.
It was the sulfur smell that first led Paul Waxman, an employee at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County, to search for alternatives for his turbo-diesel Jetta. He has been driving on 100 percent biodiesel for four years now and said he much prefers the deep-fried smell of soybean oil. He said nothing needed to be done to get his car ready for the new fuel.
Waxman said a friend of his in Calvert County drives 80 miles to buy 200 gallons of biodiesel from a service station in New Windsor, Md., in Carroll County, and a small group shares the fuel.
"I don't remember the last time I went to a gas station," he said.