A plan to reduce Berkeley air pollution and possibly save a homeless shelter may have to wait until the city budget crisis clears up.
In the coming weeks, advocates at the Ecology Center plan to ask the city to convert its fleet of 24 garbage trucks from diesel to cleaner biodiesel fuel. The $100,000 to $300,000 price tag, though, has some doubting that the city can afford a conversion.
Furthermore, denying a conversion would likely further delay the expansion of a city homeless shelter at Harrison Park.
That project is already on hold because of bad air quality. The shelter sits next to the city’s waste transfer station where its diesel trucks contribute to air pollution the city says is at “dangerously high” levels.
Using biodiesel, made of soybean oil instead of petroleum, in the city’s sanitation trucks would reduce soot emissions and other harmful particulate matter by 80 percent, Ecology Center representatives said. The center, which provides the city’s recycling service, uses biodiesel fuel in its 10 recycling trucks.
City Councilmember Linda Maio, who will bring the request before council, said councilmembers will likely support the idea. But the price might prohibit action, Maio said.
“We squeaked through the budget this year to come up with another $100,000. ... It’s a matter of cost,” she said.
Biodiesel costs roughly $1 more a gallon than regular diesel gasoline, and is only about 82 percent as efficient. In addition, because the fuel is used in just one of every10,000 diesel engines, few suppliers exist.
This is bound to change, said Dave Williamson, recycling director at the Ecology Center. If more cities like Berkeley change to biodiesel, prices will fall and availability will rise.
Williamson said the effort is worthwhile because the Ecology Center’s 10 biodiesel recycling trucks spare the city10 tons of pollution each year, Williamson said.
If the city followed suit, air pollution that threatens the neighborhood near Harrison Park could be improved, he said.
Berkeley already has committed itself to reducing citywide diesel engine emissions. The city has begun converting some of its diesel vehicles, like fire engines and school buses, to compressed natural gas engines, which are as clean as biodiesel and are more fuel efficient.
However, the compressed gas engines cost approximately $75,000 each, so acquiring the funds could take years, Williamson said. The advantage of using biodiesel fuel is that it can be used in a regular diesel engine, so the city would not have to buy new engines.
“We see biodiesel as a ‘bridge fuel’,” said Williamson. “It’s a way to get cities into the alternative fuel game without having to buy more trucks.”
City Council is expected to ask city staff to estimate the cost of biodiesel conversion. A final decision is not expected until December, which environmental activists say is a dangerously long wait.
“We know from [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] reports that the air is bad. Why wait three more months to start solving the problem,” said Martin Bourque, Ecology Center executive director.
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