The Now and Future Fuel
Biodiesel’s Enduring Benefits in an Electrified World
By Bill Stadick
Electric vehicles (EVs) are a hot topic among green energy proponents. But as electric power gains cultural and market momentum, don’t count biodiesel out just yet.
“Biodiesel continues to have a significant niche in the fuels market because it increases energy security, improves air quality and the environment, and provides safety benefits,” says Linda Bluestein, co-director of Clean Cities in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office. The office seeks to form partnerships between government, private and nonprofit organizations to advance alternative fuels and petroleum displacement methods.
“Fuel diversity is extremely important for energy security, resiliency, innovation and affordability,” the University of Illinois graduate adds.
And achieving a diverse fuel supply depends on exploring new options, such as electricity, compressed natural gas and hydrogen, without abandoning proven alternative fuel solutions available today, such as biodiesel.
Right-Now, Still Century-Later Solutions
“Because of the media buzz around EV technologies, people often think EVs are going to come in and wipe the slate clean,” says Bailey Arnold, senior manager of clean air initiatives at the American Lung Association (ALA). “But we likely will have diesel-powered vehicles in 100 years, maybe even in 200 years, so we will need liquid fuels to power them. That’s why we need to embrace cleaner-burning liquid fuel solutions, like biodiesel, that are right here, right now.”
As a part of his ALA role, Arnold helps fleet managers assess biodiesel’s health, environmental and economic benefits when compared with regular diesel and other alternatives, including battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). Although BEVs produce zero tailpipe emissions, he says EV benefits vary across the continental U.S. as diverse resources are used to produce electricity.
Arnold cites U.S. Energy Information Administration data, which show fossil fuels make up 63.5 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. while renewables make up only 17.1 percent. He also points to California Air Resources Board (CARB) data showing how CO2 emissions from electric power compare to biodiesel and other fuel emissions. Considering production emissions, electricity’s total carbon footprint is often on par with regular diesel and higher than biodiesel.
What’s Driving Electric Adoption?
Despite these environmental realities, the personal electric vehicle (PEV) market is growing, with more than one million PEVs sold in the U.S. in 2018. PEV models are still limited but becoming more readily available each year. With battery costs decreasing and range increasing, PEVs now compete more favorably with conventional vehicles.
Opportunities for electric power are growing more slowly in the medium- and heavy-duty fleet market, which runs primarily on diesel fuel. Diesel is the undisputed power source for moving goods across the country, fueling 90 percent of all freight nationally. That includes the trucking, rail, marine, industrial, ag and construction sectors, according to the Diesel Technology Forum.
Barriers to adoption of electricity in heavy-duty applications include time required for charging, limited operating ranges and inconsistent availability of charging stations for long-distance travel. Locally operating fleets need to establish vehicle charging facilities and consider electric costs based on time-of-use rates.
These barriers may drop as state and federal governments increasingly embrace electric vehicle power. A key driver is a $2.9 billion Environmental Mitigation Fund created as part of a 2016 action against Volkswagen for violations of the Clean Air Act. According to Bluestein, these funds are largely being invested in infrastructure to support electric transportation. Each state receives a share of these funds based on the number of Volkswagen vehicles sold in that state. In Illinois, the settlement amounts to $108 million for state-level projects.
One national effort supporting electric vehicle use is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s corridor program, which designates corridors along major highways where drivers can recharge electric vehicles, as well as obtain hydrogen, propane and natural gas fuels. The goal is to improve mobility of alternative fuel vehicles. Government incentives also help steer fleets toward electricity by providing subsidies for electric vehicle purchases.
Trying Out Electricity
One company exploring electric power is Cook-Illinois Corporation of Oak Brook, the largest family-owned-and-operated U.S. school bus contractor. Cook-Illinois services Chicago-area customers with 18 school bus subsidiaries and operates shuttles at Midway International Airport.
John Benish, Jr., president of Cook-Illinois, believes it will take time for fleets to significantly move away from liquid fuels. As a member of the B20 Club, Cook-Illinois is committed to using B20 to fuel its school bus and airport shuttle fleet. However, the company recently used Volkswagen settlement funds to purchase two electric buses, each costing about $350,000.
“The only way I could get these buses is because costs are mostly subsidized by the government,” says Benish. “The buses will arrive this month, and we’re going to evaluate them closely over the next couple of years. The obvious plus is zero emissions, but we’re also going to evaluate how long it will take to recharge the buses.”
Benish also plans to consider more than just tailpipe emissions when evaluating the overall impact on the environment. “I want to know the actual carbon footprint for a full-size electric bus because it’s obviously big and heavy. It takes a lot of coal to produce electricity. We are going to look at how that green footprint compares to biodiesel and other options,” he says.
What Biodiesel Brings
Proponents stress the important thing to remember is that biodiesel is an alternative energy option proving its value right now. Biodiesel can be an affordable alternative fuel option for fleets, and Bluestein points out it’s a domestically produced, clean-burning and renewable substitute for regular diesel. It is used in diesel vehicles without need for engine modification.
Another important consideration is longevity. In June 2000, biodiesel became the first and only alternative fuel to have successfully completed the Tier I and Tier II Health Effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The biodiesel industry invested more than $2 million and four years into the health effects testing program with the goal of setting biodiesel apart from other alternative fuels and increasing consumer confidence in biodiesel.
Biodiesel also is a high-quality fuel that must meet 23 minimum qualifications for ASTM standards, compared to the 14 qualifications petroleum diesel must meet. It is higher in cetane for reduced smoke and naturally sulfur-free, meeting limits of 15 parts per million or less.
At a practical, everyday level, biodiesel benefits are just as apparent. Cook-Illinois has been running biodiesel in its school buses for 13 years. “One benefit is you can fuel a bus I bought two, seven or 10 years ago,” says Benish. “There’s no need to retrofit the bus. It’s reliable. It’s better for the bus. It cuts down on emissions. And it supports Illinois soybean farmers.”
Both-And, Not Either-Or
Considering the experiences of Cook-Illinois and the realities outlined by Bluestein and Arnold, it becomes increasingly clear the future of alternative energy will not be based on a single solution. It’s much more likely to be an “all of the above” answer, using both electricity and proven alternatives like biodiesel.
“Biodiesel can continue to have a significant niche in the fuels market,” according to Bluestein. “This will allow it to increase resiliency, lower certain emissions and provide a fuel with great performance and emissions profiles for on- and off-road purposes.”