Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, May 21, 2018

Quick Take: Biodiesel fuel: Reducing AU's carbon footprint or a waste of time?


Every Friday, the Quick Take columnists will offer their views on an issue of significance to American University. Notable members of the campus community will also be invited to contribute to this feature. Suggestions for topics and other ideas from readers are welcome and encouraged, so please submit comments to

American University recently announced that the AU shuttles are making the switch to biodiesel fuel. This week, the Quick Take addresses the issue of if this is an appropriate use of university resources.

Taylor Kenkel

Biofuels can't make buses 20 percent cooler

Scott Weathers

Biofuel a key step forward AU's eco-friendly goals

Biofuels can't make buses 20 percent cooler

By Taylor Kenkel

The future was supposed to be all about jet packs, flying cars, and vacations on the moon, but that was probably before we realized turning the planet into a giant sauna with greenhouse gas emissions weren’t the best idea.

AU believes leaping forward into that great big, beautiful tomorrow means switching the shuttle fleet to B20 biodiesel fuel. The conversion seems like a positive step forward in AU’s sustainability plans. Sure, B20 fuel is a bit better than regular diesel. However, saying it’s eco-friendly is like comparing regular vs. baked potato chips and declaring the oven-cooked ones “healthy” because they’re not deep-fried like the regular ones. In that case, healthier does not equal healthy with potato chips. And in the case of the AU shuttles, slightly greener does not translate to eco-friendly. In short, switching to bio-based fuel without taking other steps to reduce the carbon footprint of the school’s transportation services entirely ignores the need for more sweeping reforms at the school.

Just to clear the air, AU’s shuttles are not switching entirely to biofuel. The B20 fuel is instead 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel fuel. The biodiesel part is made of refined vegetable oils that are chemically altered for compatibility with diesel engines. It’s not straight-up vegetable oil fuel that’s fresh from the fryer, which involves a separate conversion process and the use of an entirely different type of tank to power the vehicle. Biodiesel beats out diesel in the sustainability boxing match, as it originates from plants instead of petroleum and produces fewer emissions.

Even though the new B20 fuel is a teensy bit better than diesel, the shuttles didn’t suddenly get 20 percent cooler by adding a bit of vegetable-based fuel to the mix. Biodiesel comes with its own set of problems— including the food vs. fuel debate, increased nitrous oxide emissions, and whether or not the matter used to produce the biofuel was grown and harvested in a sustainable manner.

Instead of just converting the fleet to the B20 fuel, AU should consider decreasing the frequency of the shuttle trips between campus, Tenleytown and the WCL in order to cut our carbon footprint. Tenleytown is only a mile from the center of AU’s campus— a 15-20 minute walk for most individuals and just over five-minutes on a leisurely bike ride. The need for the current shuttle frequency to cover such a negligible distance is puzzling, as walking and biking require absolutely no fuel and easily cover the distance between the school and the metro.

Getting rid of the shuttles entirely wouldn’t be feasible only because doing so would ignore the transportation needs of individuals with disabilities. That said, AU should seriously consider cutting back on the shuttle service and instead promoting carbon-neutral forms of transportation to campus, like biking through the school’s free bike-sharing program.

Many members of the student body drag their heels on sustainability initiatives, including everything from the inconvenience of reusable boxes in TDR to the absence of plastic bags around campus. With that in mind, students probably will not like a limited shuttle schedule. AU would be wise to include students outside of the eco-hippie circle in the initiative brainstorming process. On the flip side, students need to understand that we cannot keep abusing the planet by engaging in environmentally destructive behaviors. We can both voluntarily adapt and attempt to mitigate the damage caused by previous generations, or we will be forced into dramatic changes as sea levels rise and the planet turns into a giant oven.

If someone comes up with a solar-powered hover board in the next few years, I’m more than willing to take it for a spin. Until then, we need to start taking bigger leaps forward than simply swapping out a fraction of the shuttles’ diesel for biofuel.

Taylor Kenkel is a senior in the School of Communication.

Biofuel a key step forward AU's eco-friendly goals

By Scott Weathers

Usually, decisions aren't this easy. By converting all of the AU shuttles to biodiesel this November, our school will save money, cut emissions and put us on track to having a carbon-neutral campus by 2020. Some green technologies may require a greater front-end investment or disruptive changes in procedure, but the only drawback of using biodiesel is that it requires slightly more fuel filter maintenance.

While biofuel is an imperfect energy source, it currently represents the most potent alternative energy for cutting emissions. Although many criticize biofuel for diverting crop land from farming food, global climate change is likely our greatest environmental threat. Biofuel may help prevent climate change. A 2010 study released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency concluded that using biodiesel cuts greenhouse gas emissions 57 percent, as compared to petroleum diesel. It is important to acknowledge that our buses will still run on 80 percent petroleum diesel. But make no mistake: overall emissions will reduce.

Still, we must recognize that global climate change will not be solved by the actions of individuals, as it is a global crisis caused by billions of polluters. Very simply, as the global economy grows, our emissions will continue to grow, as will the consequences of climate change.

However, we must not be complacent with AU's decision to convert its buses to biofuel. Certainly, I applaud the desire of some to minimize our impact as much as possible. However, we must remember that global cooperation is the only solution that will substantially ease our rising temperatures. Regardless of our means, cap-and-trade or solar energy, the only path to a cooler world walks through all nations' emissions.

In observing new research on climate change, Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency's chief economist said, “the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” That's eleven degrees Fahrenheit, at which point no one can reasonably predict what will happen. Although this trend is by no means set in stone, we should be able to conclude that without action, climate change will eventually force us to respond.

If there's anything admirable about AU students, it's that we optimistically act to better our community and world. The biofuel initiative is evidence of that. But climate change will be a test of whether our idealism can create global cooperation out of global discord, disagreement and disarray.

Scott Weathers is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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