Al Gustin

Al Gustin

At a trade show last spring, I asked a soybean industry official, “What is the most exciting thing happening in your world these days?” Without hesitation, he said, “Renewable diesel.” He went on to explain there were two soybean processing plants planned for North Dakota, and at least some soybean oil from those plants would be converted to renewable diesel at a refinery near Dickinson. The renewable diesel, he said, would then be shipped to states like California.

Late this summer, I interviewed Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association, about this new demand for oilseeds.

“Right now, 44% of the diesel used in California is biodiesel or renewable diesel, and soy oil is the main feedstock for that,” he said. The amount of soy oil used for food use is predicted to decrease in the United States in the coming 20 years, he said, and canola oil will be needed to fill that gap.

To a large degree, vegetable oils can be substituted for each other. The vegetable oil you buy at the grocery store might be a blend of soybean, canola and sunflower oils. And the hope is that renewable diesel will soon be made from soybean oil, or sunflower oil, or canola oil or a blend of all three.

“It’s just incredible what we’re seeing going forward for the next 20 years in the oilseeds sector,” Coleman told me.

When I asked a sunflower industry official if renewable diesel could do for oilseeds what ethanol did for corn, he said “absolutely.” About one-third of the U.S. corn crop goes into ethanol production.

In March 1980, we went to Chuck Bahm’s farm south of New Salem to report on renewable fuels. Bahm was running a tractor diesel engine on 80% sunflower oil and 20% diesel, with just minor modifications to the engine.

“If I had an extractor today, I’d be making my own fuel and I’d be running it,” Bahm said. Grow your own diesel! It seemed, at the time, to be the logical direction we should be headed. Now, 40-plus years later, renewable diesel might be what Bahm and others like him were dreaming about.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.