Alternative Fuel: Biodiesel 101 | U.S. Gain
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Alternative Fuel: Biodiesel 101

Published:

January 15, 2020

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Overview

Biodiesel is a domestically produced, renewable fuel made primarily from biomass such as vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled restaurant grease. Production occurs through transesterification, separating glycerin from biodiesel, which can then be blended into different concentrations for use: B5 (< 5% biodiesel), B20 (6-20% biodiesel) or B100 (100% biodiesel). Blends of <5% aren’t required to be labeled, so you may be using biodiesel without even knowing it. 

Fleet benefits

As companies search for transportation-related emission reductions in either scope 1 or scope 3 categories biodiesel is a good start. Biodiesel offers 57 – 86% reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, depending on feedstock and blend.  

As a drop-in fuel for traditional diesel vehicles with similar fuel economy, this alternative fuel doesn’t require new vehicles or vehicle modifications, significantly shortening the conversion process. Further, biodiesel raises the cetane number of the fuel which works to improve fuel lubricity, extending wear of engine components. 

From a cost perspective, biodiesel qualifies as a renewable fuel under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program, which were all created to expand clean fuel solutions and reduce transportation-related emissions. In 2018 the biodiesel industry produced 2.6 billion gallons of biodiesel and became the largest generator of LCFS credits (see definition below), making it the most widely used alternative fuel.   

In some regions, biodiesel isn’t so much of a “can we have it”, rather a “you must use it” conversation. According to the chart below, courtesy of Breakthrough, biodiesel blends are mandated in some states across the nation. 

Fleet considerations

Biodiesel is undoubtedly an easy path to emission reductions, but still contains a few key considerations to keep in mind. 

  • Fueling infrastructure for blends of B20 and higher is limited, with only a few hundred stations across the nation. The limited availability is partly due to demand and also because stations that offer blends of B20 and higher are subject to further certification procedures and lack storage capabilities. 
  • The next concern is relative to capability. Fleets considering use of biodiesel should first check with their vehicle manual to ensure it can use biodiesel. The manual will identify if biodiesel can be used and then if so, which blends are compatible with the engine. Most vehicles are can use B5, but then higher blends are in question. The National Biodiesel Board’s OEM Information also tracks compatibility of various vehicles. 
  • If your fleet operates in cold climates, you may consider the blend of biodiesel used as higher blends may not perform well in cold weather conditions because it freezes faster than traditional diesel. 

Bottom line

Biodiesel is a quick solution to immediate transportation-related emission benefits. It’s a drop-in fuel for most existing diesel vehicles in blends of B5 and B20 and qualifies for government financial credits. However, emission benefits are small compared to other alternative fuels, fueling infrastructure is still quite limited and fuel costs may be challenging for fleets seeking the lowest cost fuel solution.

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