Written on: November 9, 2023 by Scott Fenwick
Scott, as Technical Director of Clean Fuels Alliance (formerly National Biodiesel Board), the trade association for producers and distributors of renewable low-carbon liquid fuels like biodiesel and renewable diesel, how do you see the aggressive push to decarbonize all sectors of industry, including home heating?
A lot of people think it may be a fad, a trend. This isn’t one of those. This is not going away. If you take a step back and look at a more historical perspective, public policy changes with each administration or from State to State. Under the Obama administration, we talked about sustainability and Green jobs, and with biodiesel we had that arrow in our quiver. Following that, it was about domestic energy security and domestic jobs, other areas where low-carbon liquid fuels shone. Now it’s about climate change, greenhouse gas reductions, and decarbonization. We’re at the leading edge of that as well. We are seeing the efforts to decarbonize are now being led by some of the largest corporations in the world in what they call their Environmental, Social and Governance programs (ESG). Companies like Amazon, Nike and Walmart are forcing their shipping companies to reduce their carbon footprint.
There are some very strong directives, laws and policies that point to electrification as the only way to decarbonize. How do renewable liquid fuels fit into this discussion?
There is no silver bullet solution, a one-size-fits-all. We have a great solution available today. Electrification will certainly play a part and it can be another great solution in certain applications for certain people. However, in the heavy-duty segments, or the rail and marine segments that are harder areas to decarbonize, they don’t have to change their fueling infrastructure to use low-carbon liquid fuels and there aren’t any huge conversion technologies that are needed. The same with the heating sector; it’s what Microsoft would have referred to as plug and play.
Let’s talk a little bit about the myths around heating with low-carbon liquid fuels—at this point, primarily biodiesel, and its branded name when blended with heating oil, Bioheat® fuel. What are some of those myths out there and how would you answer them?
All you can really do is address them one point at a time. There are still service technicians that have been in this industry for decades, they’ve seen a transition from high sulfur to ultra-low sulfur fuels and, now adding renewable fuels into the mix. Combustion technologies are quickly catching up, but it’s a slower process than we would like to help educate those folks. What I would express to them is all fuels have issues. Renewable fuels aren’t any different. There are things that are challenges but can be overcome. I do believe that the benefits outweigh those challenges.
One of the first challenges that we’ve encountered is cold flow. Biodiesel does tend to gel at a higher temperature than petroleum fuels do, but it’s manageable in the same way that you would manage a really cold day with ultra-low sulfur heating oil.
There are fuel additives that treat the petroleum fraction, so if it’s a B5 or B20, those traditional additives can still work—there are heated fuel systems as well and there is blending with kero on really cold days. Those are known solutions that the industry has dealt with for decades. A new fuel additive was introduced this year formulated specifically for companies moving up to higher blends of biodiesel and, as a result, decarbonization.
Long-term stability is another one that we hear about. The myth is that biofuels like biodiesel can’t be stored as long as petroleum fuels. Our research shows that they can. The adjustment that the industry does need to make is that you can no longer just buy fuel, drop it in your tank and forget it. Those days should have disappeared a couple of decades ago. Even when we changed from high sulfur to ultra-low sulfur fuels, there were changes and precautions—best practices—that now need to be implemented in maintaining fuel quality. First and foremost is keeping the fuel clean and dry. This is not specific to biodiesel blends, low or high. This applies to all fuels.
Those issues, which as you say are all manageable, also come with benefits beyond decarbonization, is that right?
Yes, one is the clean combustion of biodiesel. If you’re running B100, it is an ultra-clean fuel, partly because it is an oxygenated fuel, and that oxygen in that fuel helps during combustion. It lowers the emissions, which means less PM (particulate matter) and less soot that builds up in the system and less that is released into the atmosphere. At B50, you’re still getting half of those benefits. At B20, it would be a fifth less.
Clean Fuels has been at this for decades, so this is not a novel fuel. What initiatives can we expect from Clean Fuels in the near future?
Well, I think it’s not just Clean Fuels out in front. We’ve got a whole industry initiative behind us. Collaboratively, we are working with some of the leading distributors in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States on their marketing and educational efforts. We are working with the equipment manufacturers to get their latest version of equipment approved for B100 and we will help with their marketing efforts through social media, press releases, etc. What is important to remember is that clean burning combustion and decarbonization is not just for the industry, but for the consumer as well.
There are many retail fuel marketers who have not started their transitions to renewable, low-carbon fuels, or perhaps those that have stalled at low levels. What would you say to them?
I don’t want you to just take my word for it. I want you to talk to others. Talk with your peers throughout the industry that are using it and see what they tell you. We’re more than happy to share any industry data, the good, the bad and the ugly, because like I said, there isn’t a perfect fuel, but we will share the solutions to help overcome the issues. I think as more people begin communicating throughout the industry, they’re going to see that, just like we’ve been saying for a couple of decades, the benefits outweigh those challenges. With today’s legislative regulatory pushes along with social pushes to decarbonize as quickly as possible, this is going to be their low-cost and relatively easy option.
When you’re talking about businesses that have been in the family for three or four generations, they’ve seen transitions from coal to high-sulfur fuel, now to ultra-low sulfur fuels and renewable fuels, and we’re increasing those blends. The industry will continue to evolve and change. Cleaner combustion technologies, cleaner fuel, better equipment. We are saying, keep looking at what’s available, keep looking at your options so that you’re ahead of that curve. They’ve seen good results from their storage, their delivery, the technicians working with the product, and then ultimately, satisfaction from the customer with relatively low pushback. This helps the industry stay viable in the long term.
What is the future going to look like for the heating fuel sector?
Clean Fuels Alliance America has been around now for three decades doing research and studies. It’s taken us a long time just to introduce it and get to B2 to B5 to B20. We are now hearing people say that B20 is not enough for their decarbonization efforts. Now with B100 equipment approvals, we are going to start seeing more and more B100, a truly 100% low-carbon fuel, out there in the marketplace.
I think the industry, as it moves toward B100, is going to face increasing competition for renewable fuels from other areas, including railroads, marine and aviation, who are facing their own decarbonization challenges. We are providing a solution that’s available to the heating sector right now and the quicker heating fuel marketers can get on board, the quicker they’ll have an inside track. However, it takes a commitment from the marketers and the low-carbon fuel suppliers working in concert to ensure the availability of the product.
The traditional oil heat customer might look very different in one, two, or three years. Yes, it’s happening that fast. Where can marketers go to get more information?
CleanFuels.org, is our association’s website. It has a lot of valuable information about cold weather operability, stability and other technical issues. Of course, NORA (NORAweb.org) and MyBioheat.com are other great resources as well. ICM