Sherry Dean has a secret she’s been keeping from her drivers since March — their Upshur County school buses are running on an alternative fuel made of vegetable oil and diesel.

“I wanted to run it without my drivers or mechanics knowing,” she said. “That way I can have a true feeling for how it’s doing.”

So far, the results have been “great.”

Dean is among a slowly growing number of county transportation directors in West Virginia and across the nation who are switching from straight diesel to a mixture of diesel and biodiesel, a fuel based primarily on vegetable oils.

Biodiesel use has been growing since 1992 when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act in a move to reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. It has since been approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as an alternative fuel.

Since 1999, biodiesel use nationwide has grown from 500,000 gallons to 25 million gallons in 2004. It is estimated that usage will surpass 50 million gallons this year, said Amber Pearson with the Missouri-based National Biodiesel Board. The board was established in 1992 by soybean commodity groups to promote the use and research of biodiesel.

School systems have contributed to the growth. About 100 systems nationwide have made the switch, “and that number is growing all the time,” Pearson said.

Nevada’s Clark County started using the fuel after lawmakers in that state required the phased-in purchase of alternative-powered vehicles. The school system, which includes Las Vegas, uses about 3 million gallons a year, said Frank Giordano, who oversees the county’s fleet of 1,300 school buses and 1,600 other vehicles.

“The good part of that is we’ve displaced 600,000 gallons of petroleum fuel,” said Giordano. “That’s something we’re pretty proud of.”

While county and school officials say they haven’t noticed any appreciable increase in miles-per-gallon, they all say biodiesel doesn’t require expensive modifications to their diesel engine buses. Also, the fuel produces fewer emissions and is healthier for the 24 million schoolchildren who ride buses daily.

And, perhaps, more importantly, recent petroleum price increases — coupled with state and federal incentives — now makes biodiesel an economical choice.

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