Biodiesel use rises to meet regulations, reduces carbon emissions in transportation sector

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,472 views 

The rise in the use of biodiesel can be attributed to the regulations requiring its blending into petroleum diesel fuel as it’s contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

In a recent webinar on biodiesel, Troy Shoen, senior manager of marketing for Renewable Energy Group of Ames, Iowa, explained the benefits of biodiesel and highlighted the company’s impact on the transportation sector as the largest biodiesel producer in the United States. Shoen said the company sold 649 million gallons of the fuel in 2018, equating to $2.4 billion in sales. It has 14 bio refineries — 12 of which are in the United States — and a production capacity of 520 million gallons annually.

“We did produce over 500 million gallons of biodiesel last year, and that equated to 12.5 billion miles off the road,” Shoen said. “So, 4.3 million metric tons of carbon reduction and 10.5 billion miles driven by the average passenger vehicle reduced as a result of biodiesel.”

Biodiesel is often blended with petroleum diesel in mixtures of 5% to 20%, or B5 to B20, and is produced from fats, oils and grease, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). U.S. biodiesel production has risen over the past two years because of the decline in imported biodiesel and a rise in regulatory requirements for biomass-based diesel, which also includes renewable diesel. The Renewable Fuel Standard, a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requires blending of renewable fuels into the U.S. fuel supply. California also has regulatory requirements, and biomass-based diesel can be used to reach the tightening fuel standards.

In California, biodiesel and renewable diesel contributed to the largest reduction in transportation-related sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to data from the California Air Resources Board. The fuels removed 4.3 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and exceed the reductions attributed to ethanol. Since 2011, biodiesel and renewable diesel have cut more than 18 million tons of CO2.

“The pairing of biofuels with new-generation diesel engines is, hands down, one of the most effective and underrated ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty transportation sources,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. “Even though battery electric technologies dominate the headlines, electric cars and trucks in California resulted in only 1.2 million tons of CO2 reductions in 2018 — one-third of the emissions reductions delivered by diesel biofuels.”

While one might see a few more Tesla vehicles, the future of heavy-duty trucking for at least the next 30 years is expected to be in diesel fuel, Shoen said, adding as 97% of trucks run on diesel in the United States. However, for the third consecutive year in 2018, he said the transportation sector is the largest source of emissions in the United States.

“Diesel operators can reduce their lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, simply by switching to biomass-based diesel,” said Jeremy Baines, vice president of North American sales for Neste, the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel fuel. “At Neste, we believe so strongly in renewable diesel as a long-term solution we have made significant investments to nearly double our production capacity by 2022.”

Since 2015, imports of renewable diesel have come from Singapore and were 11,000 barrels per day in 2018, according to the EIA. All of the imports go to California and are likely use to meet fuel standards in the state. Renewable diesel is not subject to any blending limitations as it’s made of hydrocarbon chains that are the same as petroleum diesel. Over the past two years, imports of renewable diesel have fallen because of operational issues at the main production facility in Singapore. In 2018 and 2019, net imports of biomass-based diesel are expected to be 300 million gallons, or about 20,000 barrels per day.

Between 2016 and 2018, U.S. biodiesel production rose 18.6% from 102,000 barrels per day to a record of nearly 121,000 barrels per day, according to the EIA. Over the same period, imports of biodiesel declined 76% to 11,000 barrels per day after the United States imposed import duties on Argentina and Indonesia, which had accounted for 60% of total U.S. imports of biomass-based diesel in 2016. By 2020, U.S. biodiesel production is expected to increase by 28.9% to 156,000 barrels per day.

Shoen said one of the myths about biodiesel is it hurts fuel efficiency, but he cited four studies showing no difference in fuel efficiency when comparing diesel to the fuel with a 20% blend of biodiesel. He also said biodiesel helps to reduce engine wear, requires no changes to trucks before it can be used and noted that carriers should not be spending more for biodiesel. He recommended carriers that start to use biodiesel to clean their fuel tanks before filling them with biodiesel because if a problem comes about it could be related to something other than the fuel such as rust in the tank.

“As a whole, biomass-based diesel reduces well over 20 million metric tons of CO2 nationwide annually, while still allowing fleets to utilize their existing and new diesel vehicles without modification,” said Don Scott, director of sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. “That truly represents a win-win, for the transportation sector and for the environment.”