Surprised, California leads nation in biodiesel production

Written on: September 3, 2013 by ICM

by Chris Clarke on August 29, 2013 4:45 PM

Biodiesel samples from the Bay Area company Propel | Photo: Horatio Nailknot/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Remember biodiesel? The fuel that was going to save the world back 10 or 12 years ago, but then fell off many people’s radar? The fuel lost prominence for a reason, with regulatory uncertainty in the late 2000s almost putting the sector out of business in California.
But now the fuel is on the upswing, minus some of the overenthusiastic but understandable hype, and according to a recent survey of the industry, California’s biodiesel sector is growing by leaps and bounds.
The survey, released Monday by Environmental Defense Fund, notes that uncertainty over federal tax credits for biodiesel production and vague state laws concerning the fuel’s storage in underground tanks caused the industry to, well, tank between 2005 and 2010. California’s biodiesel output fell by roughly two-thirds during those years. But a combination of recent state and federal incentives and resolution to those regulatory woes has given biodiesel a shot in the arm, with the result that the state’s production of biodiesel is now well above its peak in 2005.

Biodiesel is a fuel made from animal or vegetable fats, converted chemically in a process called transesterification. In theory, biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine without modification. (Practically speaking it’s not always that simple: some older diesel engines incorporate hoses and other plastic parts made of material that biodiesel can corrode.)
Though much biodiesel, especially that made in the European Union, comes from virgin vegetable oils, one of the aspects of biodiesel that attracted the most enthusiasm a decade ago is the potential for recovering waste oils and greases from other industries like restaurants for conversion to fuel feedstock. Not only does this reduce the environmental footprint of the fuel, by avoiding the impact involved in growing oil crops specifically for fuel use, but it also keeps waste fats out of landfills and bodies of water.
But even using virgin oils grown specifically for biodiesel use can be a boon, depending on how and where those crops are grown. The useful energy in biodiesel is stored in long carbon chains, and those chains were made from atmospheric carbon dioxide by the plants that originally grew the oil. If the fossil fuels used to grow and transport the feedstock oil are kept to a minimum biodiesel can have a significantly lower carbon footprint than conventional diesel, as much of the carbon given off when it’s burned started out in the atmosphere to begin with.
What prompted the boost in production over the last few years? A few initiatives from the Feds and the state. The National Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandated a Renewable Fuel Standard, which required that the amount of renewable fuels being sold in the U.S. reach 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. That standard includes ethanol fuels, which make up the bulk of the renewable fuels sold by volume, but it was a serious boon to biodiesel producers as well. Fuel blenders also receive a $1 per gallon tax credit, which was belatedly renewed in January.
And on the state level, the same law that launched our greenhouse gas cap and trade auction program, AB 32, also mandated a Low Carbon Fuel Standard requiring that the relative carbon footprint of California”s fuel habit be reduced.
As a result of those incentives and regulations, Caliifornia is leading the U.S. in biodiesel: anearlier survey of the industry showed that of just over 80 biodiesel companies in the U.S., about 30 are based in California.
“Once again, California is ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering on fuels that not only protect the environment but also make good business sense to produce,” said Environmental Defense Fund’s Emily Reyna. “Because of the state’s commitment to biodiesel, we’ll continue to see biodiesel opportunities grow, an industry that is prime to be a leader in alternative fuels for California.”

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.