Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when we push our clocks forward with the arrival of spring, we could simultaneously advance our industry’s clock by accelerating our timeline to decarbonize the energy landscape we occupy?
Unfortunately, this is impossible. Advancing an industry that seeks to decarbonize takes time, patience, planning, communication and, beyond all else, a willingness to do so—the latter being the most important and desired, in my opinion.
Those pioneers who determined that leveraging a low-carbon liquid as an effective means to blend down the carbon intensity of fuel oil had, and continue to have, a great deal of patience and are committed to succeed. The individuals and leadership groups representing Industry that aligned with these pioneers brought with them discipline, energy, determination and a willingness to move beyond carbon-intensive, fossil-fuel oil through planning, execution and communication along every step of the road to a cleaner, more sustainable future.
What strategy is best to encourage fuel dealers to open communication with their wet-barrel suppliers in order to make plans for accessing the ratable, competitive biodiesel blends they wish to deliver to their customers? Often, when speaking with fuel dealers, I learn they have struggled to secure supply. What a tragic outcome.
To make a long story short, just ask for it, prepare for it and secure it—that’s the best definitive strategy I can offer you. Biodiesel is out there, but you need to be proactive to secure it, as it will not just come to you.
The equipment companies have risen to the challenge of preparing their offerings to accommodate biodiesel blends up to 100%. Work continues at the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) and legacy equipment companies to share these upgrades downstream. Technology efforts to improve fuel quality and equipment performance are ongoing processes. We may have begun this journey two decades ago with biodiesel, but we’re not stopping there.
The obvious next area of growth to ensure adequate supply of low-carbon fuel would be the integration of renewable diesel. If the fuel can be introduced competitively throughout heating-fuel nation, then it will ultimately play a role as a Bioheat® blending component before potentially going directly to R100.
Currently, renewable diesel is most often shipped and consumed throughout the West Coast marketplace. California, Oregon and Washington have their own low-carbon fuel programs in place to offset the higher costs associated with renewable diesel.
Like biodiesel, renewable diesel has distinct advantages to blend into on-road, off-road and heating-oil middle-distillate fuels. The use of these low-carbon liquid renewable fuels is a logical and intelligent solution to meet the directives of Federal and State policymakers.
Both biodiesel and renewable diesel producers rely upon the same feedstocks to manufacture their finished products, and they are all staking their claim on supply of these important renewable raw materials as emerging markets outside of the Bioheat®-fuel nation are sharply demanding more.
Those States with incentives or mandates currently in place have established a solid defense to secure these barrels, and they show no sign of pulling back. In fact, they want more and more of this 21st-century fuel. Out west, it is not uncommon to see blends of renewable diesel and biodiesel, whether R95/B5 or R80/B20—no carbon liquids whatsoever. That, my friends, is progress.
Another emerging market demanding future inventories of hydrotreated biofuel is the aviation industry, which is soaking up every gallon it can find of so-called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
You need not look too far to witness the evolution of the carbon industry than some of Clean Fuels Alliance America’s valuable members, such as World Energy, Darling Ingredients and Chevron Renewable Energy Group. My good friend Gene Gebolys, the Founder & President of World Energy, has reshaped his company’s focus. On the homepage of its website, World Energy declares,
Together we’ll make net-zero real. We’re decarbonizing air, sea, rail and land, and scaling up the world’s most advanced low-carbon fuels network.
That’s a commitment, and the once-novel concept now has emerged as the most logical pathway to decarbonize our collective spaces.
On the end-user side of the field, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of industry leaders representing the rail, marine, aviation and heating-fuel markets at the 2023 Clean Fuels Conference in Tampa, FL, this past January. Powerhouse companies like Amazon, Microsoft, FedEx, UPS, and countless airline carriers are now insisting the shipping industry serving rail, marine and aviation clean up its act. Airlines are navigating aggressive sustainability goals and SAF has become the most desired and effective pathway to decarbonize air travel.
Delivering clean fuels to operate diesel-powered platforms or home heating systems is no longer an option. If you think it is, and you feel you can continue simply delivering carbon-based heating oil or diesel fuel to your customers, then you really are rolling the dice. If the policies government officials are putting in place to accelerate decarbonization haven’t motivated you to transition your book of business to cleaner-burning biodiesel blends, then you’ll likely be competing against a progressive fuel jobber that has elected to do so. They, of course, have chosen to explain to your customer why clean fuels are an intelligent choice and whose use is in the best interests of both buyers and sellers. How you market and sell fuel from this day forward will never be the same. The evolution is now.
City after city and State after State, residents continue to face an onslaught of policies from their elected (and sometimes unelected) leaders. For example, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu filed an ordinance with the city council that would require new buildings reliant on fossil fuels to install solar panels and add wiring in anticipation of a future conversion to electrification, with the goal of most new buildings going all-electric. Several other communities in Massachusetts have embraced similar efforts. Closer to home—or better stated, closer to you, the home-heating oil dealer—stories like this are becoming the norm. As silly as it seems, it is all too real. Here is an example of what dropped in my email box from the town of Andover, MA, the day I penned this article:
“I need your help! We (me, a group of passionate community members and Weston and Sampson consultants) are developing a Climate Action & Sustainability Plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Input is needed from the community including residents, students, businesses, and community groups. The plan will identify actions that can be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve resilience to the impacts of climate change. It will consider costs, equity, and barriers for implementing the actions. The business and resident surveys should take about 10 minutes to complete. Please complete the survey by April 5th, 2023.”
What followed was an entire section speaking about converting combustion appliances into, you guessed it, air-source heat pumps. So, regardless of where we turn, we in the fuel oil industry are being factored out of contention to be a long-term player in the home-comfort market.
I am merely one guy dreaming about accelerating the journey to earn a permanent place in the home comfort energy marketplace. For those who wonder why I continue to bang the drum, it’s simple: I am fortunate to have been chosen to lead Clean Fuels’ market-development program throughout the heating-oil nation and other emerging sectors nationwide. That’s been my role for decades, and this will continue to be my charge until we part ways.
Additionally, I would like to point out that Clean Fuels represents the biodiesel, renewable diesel and SAF industries’ interests, and has for some time. We do not just represent farmers and soybean oil—although soybean growers have been vital to the development and growth of the organization over the past 30 years—it’s bigger and broader than that. It will take all available feedstocks and finished products to nourish the enormous appetite for low-carbon liquid renewable fuels and satiate the on- and off-road, heating oil, marine, rail and aviation markets, as each segment simultaneously pursues decarbonization of their respective spaces.
My responsibilities are to monitor emerging technologies and to assess how we can all work together to serve Industry in the most ratable, competitive and strategic way possible. If I do my job well and you do yours, we will maintain our spot in the home-comfort industry. My personal goal is to deliver a ratable and sustainable liquid fuel to this important energy sector for both buyers and sellers. This dream is not achievable without a total buy-in from those still waiting for things to be the same. Change is here to stay. Embrace it and prosper from that decision. ICM
You may have received a notice like this in the mail recently. If you haven’t, rest assured—it is coming. The letter goes something like this:
Time is of the essence. Energy deregulation in your state allows consumers to select the energy supply used to power their homes. Simply sign and return the form enclosed and you’ll be on your way to getting 100% clean, pollution-free energy today.
This is the approach of utility companies in Anytown, U.S. to get consumers to convert to alternative energy sources. The envelope in which this too- good-to-be-true offer is delivered does look quite convincing. I opened mine and navigated the message quite easily.
There was a well-defined Q&A enclosed that answered all my questions about switching to clean energy. I had access to a toll-free 1-800 number and web portal should I require more information to make my decision and participate. How could I turn away an opportunity to transition from power routinely produced from dirty, polluting fossil fuels and natural gas to 100% clean electricity generated from wind and solar energy?
The heating oil industry needs to stop, or at least slow, this mass conversion of space heating to so-called “clean electricity.” You have the tools to retain your customers and lower their carbon footprint. It’s called Bioheat® fuel, and it’s available now.
Although our pursuit to voluntarily transition the liquid home-heating industry and our businesses to something more environmentally-friendly has been adopted by many progressive fuel dealers—big and small—we still have come up short to unanimously commit to a full transition to 20% (B20) biodiesel-blended home-heating oil (Bioheat Plus® fuel) by 2023, B50 (Bioheat Super Plus® fuel) by 2030 and net zero by 2050. Sure, we have made progress. Yes, we are now delivering more than 450 million gallons of B20 this season throughout key Bioheat® fuel States. However, we continue to come up short in getting our message to the most valuable element of the supply chain—the customer.
We struggle as an industry to finance the communication machine required to let our customers know we have an immediate, economical and intelligent solution to carbon reduction. Our messaging is the best it has been since moving from coal to home-heating oil. We have markedly improved our fuel but remain behind the curve in communicating all the wonderful benefits associated with our progress and offering. Utility companies make their message known in a variety of ways, but—and this is a big but—they conveniently fail to share important facts about what the transition to a fully electrified platform means to the consumer. These undisclosed facts include the exorbitant costs associated with retrofitting homes with air source heat pumps, the long payback, the challenged performance in cold weather and the underdeveloped grid that will buckle under their predicted growth. It is our job to share these facts, as the utility companies will not.
We are coming out of a relatively strong Winter season as it pertains to degree days. We have lived up to our reputation of keeping our customers warm and comfortable, even during the toughest of Winter conditions and frigid temperatures, but are we going to reach out to our customers and remind them of this unnoticed, underappreciated feat? Are we going to pick up the phone and share our story?
Here are some more important facts to consider: legislation, including existing and newly proposed laws, to transition our systems from carbon intense to low and zero carbon is everywhere, and no State is exempt. Our most widely sold offering—petroleum-based heating oil, which is 100% carbon—is no longer in vogue. Moreover, your tanker trucks have targets on them and regulators’ sights are set. We do, however, have a solution today. It’s proven, available now and clearly marketable. This solution is Bioheat® fuel.
Not only can Bioheat® fuel positionus to maintain our gallons and valued customer base, but it is poised to allow us to grow and capture new market share—customers that may have adopted natural gas or electricity over the years. What oilheat-user-turned-Bioheat®-customer wouldn’t want to know they’re receiving liquid energy that aligns perfectly with government officials’ broad-based plans to clean the fuels that warm and power homes and businesses?
What consumer wouldn’t like to know the facts about air source heat pumps, such as the capital outlay of more than $25,000 to prepare a home for electrification only to be encouraged to hold onto their existing gas- or Bioheat® fuel-fired systems so, when that shiny new heat pump fails to provide the same level of comfort to which they are accustomed, they can fall back on “old reliable”? Are the utilities smarter than us? Are they being honest with consumers? Do theyknow something we don’t?
The utilities suggest they’re going to reduce air pollution and fossil-fuel use to promote a healthier future. They say the switch to clean energy is easy the only action customers must take is complete a form and return it in the postage-paid envelope to receive their renewable energy. The utilities continue to stretch the truth quietly and ratably about their products as legislation pushes us further back. Meanwhile, we continue to haul our heavy hoses over snow banks to fill ICM/March/April 2022 9 basement tanks with energy-dense liquid fuel, providing comfort to millions of legacy homes.
If you’re waiting for your wholesale partner or industry leadership group to create a Madison Avenue marketing campaign to save the day, you might want to rethink that strategy. They’re already doing everything in their power to help keep our industry viable. Progressive fuel wholesaler terminal operators are making investments in tanks and systems to store, blend and provide you with Bioheat® fuel while your leadership groups are burning the midnight oil with limited resources to fight the fight.
What is missing then? The answer is a holistic and sustained commitment from the fuel-dealer network to “tell the story.” It is a bankable story, and, most importantly, a story that must be told—not when the heating season wraps up, but now. When opponents say heating oil is dead or dying, you should be in a position to finally agree with them and say, But Bioheat® fuel is alive and well—and it’s the miracle cure that revived my business and my industry. Day in and day out, with whomever you come into contact, you should be declaring that home heat is now cleaner than ever, and it’s only getting better.
I encourage every fuel dealer that has taken the time to read this article to pick up the phone, empower their employees with the facts and start the communication process. If you don’t tell your customer that you are the new provider of clean, renewable energy, then someone else will—and it will happen quickly.
For more information on Bioheat® fuel, please visit mybioheat.com and cleanfuels.org. If you need technical or marketing training or support, phone me at 978-880-5338 or 978-258-8360. Through the generosity of Clean Fuels Alliance America (formerly the National Biodiesel Board) and its many stakeholders, we are here to support you in the renaissance of home heat. ICM
No one enjoys or embraces change. It would be great if we could continue to buy and sell carbon-based fuel for the next few decades and not have to learn a new pitch to share with our customers, but the status quo is clearly not sustainable. Even the most resistant to change out there knows that—so, now what? What does this new roadmap of energy and policy being championed by our political leaders mean to us?
Our lives have been turned upside down since March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us into seclusion and redirected how we would lead our families and manage our respective businesses and careers. During this time, we learned to adapt. We figured out that many of us could be disciplined and productive working from a sliver of space in our homes. The result was momentum toward a more collaborative world order that rested on an increasingly connected global economy, one facilitated by the internet and lower-cost communication, advances in transportation and the flows of capital, skills, knowledge and people.
However, the momentum is now going in reverse. Our spaces have become more splintered, with a resurgence of distrust, competition for power and the rising politics of suspicion and resentment. Globalization doesn’t go away, but becomes more fragmented and contentious, adding to the troubles along the already-troubled path to economic growth and the need to achieve net zero, yesterday.
Before COVID-19 struck, the global economy was on fire. Anticipated growth within the next five years was well on its way to $100 trillion. Unfortunately, the world economy is now tormented by lives thrown into disarray. Small businesses everywhere are fighting for survival. Companies of all sizes are under severe pressure. Less-developed countries and developing nations have become even further impoverished, with hope evaporating for many, while even the most advanced governments are stretched to the extreme by debt and a huge loss of economic output.
The U.S. appears to be decades away from resuming normalcy, and that is assuming vaccines now in play are effective and sustainable. If not, then resuming business as usual will continue to be challenged by hesitancy and suspicion.
An alternate reality
Behaviors have been altered by this continuing COVID-19 challenge, and whether this psychological phenomenon can ever return to its previous state remains to be seen. At least for a time, there will be apprehension to return to large groups, which has already forced me to cancel not one but three XBX educational seminars sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board and its stakeholders.
This fear of gathering in close quarters is not just affecting people’s willingness to attend events, either. Carpooling and public transportation may go the way of the dinosaur, at least in the near term, while people revert to driving their own cars fueled by gasoline or coal-powered electricity subsidized with a small percent of wind or solar energy.
Work need not be concentrated in offices anymore either, as many companies have demonstrated that they can operate successfully from home offices, equipped with all the amenities of the office plus a couch for deep thinking after lunch, barking dogs or a wandering child here or there in the background. Time spent commuting can be reduced. Business meetings can be replaced, successfully or otherwise, with virtual connection. This impact will last long after lockdowns are in our rearview mirrors.
Oil’s role will be challenged by these shifts in behavior, work and daily life. It will, however, take a few years, post-vaccine, to understand the lasting impact on business and leisure travel, education, commuting and whether the office of the future will remain at home. If so, it will be important for people to work from home, but not live at work.
The current environment in which we all exist will continue to impact politics at home and abroad as well. The divide between nations will become more apparent and working together will become more difficult with a fractured global community.
A sign of these challenges can be seen every day with the widely publicized supply chain shortages. As we go to press, container ships anchored offshore, loaded high with products that are not on store shelves, are getting more and more backed up by the hour due to the lack of human resources needed to offload them and restore the supply chain.
Energy—particularly oil, gas and renewables—will continue to be an integral part of the new geopolitics in life after COVID-19, as hard as post-COVID life might be to even think of right now. While many of my industry associates struggle with keeping ahead of those legislators who are interested in electrifying everything, I choose to continue protecting market share by revealing the benefits of low-carbon liquid fuels.
Whether the discussion centers on biodiesel, renewable diesel or products yet-to-be determined, we still have an opportunity to protect and defend our businesses with these cleaner liquid fuels. If you wish to discuss electricity, hydrogen, wind and solar, then you can—but those “clean” fuels are not being hauled in your shiny aluminum tank wagons that navigate your local delivery markets. What you haul is liquid, and honestly it should be Bioheat® fuel, not generic No. 2 home heating oil.
Will the COVID-19 crisis accelerate an energy transition or slow it? Many argue for a Green recovery, with regional and national governments’ spending focused on climate-friendly infrastructure and greater support for renewables, electric vehicles and air source heat pumps. For local governments, Green and cleaner air become their rationale for restricting diesel trucks and gasoline vehicles.
The expeditious time frame to “Green up” remains unrealistic in many cases. The sheer scale of the energy infrastructure that supports our supply and demand, the need for reliability, the demand for renewables and the disruptions and conflicts that would result from speed is being disregarded in many ways.
As PADD I (Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts I—a.k.a. the U.S. East Coast) is the epicenter of home heating supply and distribution, we can intelligently evaluate available assets and make progressive improvements to prepare for the ever-increasing volume of low-carbon fuel, which will be a prerequisite for our collective survival. However, to achieve our goals, we need to accelerate communications with our customers and advise them why we are now delivering Bioheat® fuel.
At the same time, we need to press our local legislators with our story that no conversions to heat pumps are required to achieve the goals they are seeking. We have a product and are well in motion to incrementally increase volumes over the next decade to be defined, not just by ourselves but by others, as clean-fuel merchants.
All the confusion and unrest that we manage every day, individually and collectively, is what it is, as the saying goes. We seem to always figure out how to turn challenges into opportunities; however, this decade-plus long transition to low-carbon Bioheat® fuel simply is perplexing to me. What’s it going to take to convince the fence-sitters to move their trucks into the clean-heat rack position and abandon the carbon-intensive liquid, which is the same fossil-derived energy source that is pushing politicians to accelerate their efforts to jettison homeowners into installing air source heat pumps? To go one step further, do your customers really deserve to be purchasing a fuel that is on the government’s most- wanted list? I think not.
It can’t be said enough, if you are one of those naysayers who simply refuses to adopt this industry transition to clean liquid heat, you’re hurting yourself, your family, your customers and, if it matters, the industry at large. Whatever your per-gallon profit margin selling carbon-based fuels is today, multiply it by “0” because that’s what you’ll be making on a gallon of carbon that is being regulated out of business. Give Bioheat® fuel a chance and increase the odds that you will be keeping people warm for decades to come. ICM
ICM: It is my understanding that Star Group is committed to delivering blends of biodiesel up to B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% heating oil) across its entire customer base, is that accurate?
Hammond: Yes, that is accurate. Star Group is very committed to providing B20 to all of our customers. We feel it is the right thing to do for customers and for the communities that we serve. There is a lot of dialogue about climate change, both at the state and the national level, and we really believe that our industry has to be a part of that discussion. If we continue to provide increasing levels of Bioheat® fuel, we can offer an easy and affordable solution to help meet a goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Unfortunately, it seems most states and local legislators do not really know that. I am not sure that we have done a good enough job educating them and they see heating oil companies as providers of “that old fossil fuel.” Much of what we do and what we have done over the last few years aligns with everything they are trying to accomplish with carbon reduction.
We need to, as an industry, stand together and really get our message out there—explain it better to state and local public policy makers, as well our customers. Once people see what we have to offer and how we can help meet those goals, I think they are going to be quite surprised and it is going to be a welcomed surprise. We can certainly offer a much more economical option for reducing carbon emissions than many of the other alternatives out there.
ICM: What was the driving force behind this? How did this get started within your company?
Hammond: We feel that we are at a crossroads, and we have been hearing about climate change for a while. But unfortunately, many of retail fuel companies dodged the issue. We were not standing up and making the right decisions to move our industry forward. Meanwhile, state-after-state was implementing regulations that could have hurt our business.
There have been a few companies that have really put themselves in front of the pack and got on board with Bioheat® fuel very early on. They went through the growing pains, they tested it, they have proven-out a lot of the issues and concerns that we had. I give a lot of credit to those companies.
Internally, we felt that it was time that we also got on-board and really showed our support for the industry as it makes the move forward with a low carbon, renewable fuel.
Ten or 15 years ago, we first tried to deliver Bioheat® fuel and had mixed success. Our biggest struggle was supply. We are not a company that has its own terminal where all our trucks can pick up B10, B20 or whatever blend we choose. We rely on outside suppliers, so we needed everybody to get on board to help us have a consistent supply. We are starting to see some of the major suppliers get behind it. Many of the heating equipment manufacturers are being very supportive as well. It is certainly going to make our journey a lot easier.
However, in some ways it is like the chicken and the egg. Because we are so big, many companies are waiting for us to make the move. Now, it is all fitting together, I think the timing is right.
ICM: You mentioned the term Bioheat® fuel, and of course, Bioheat® fuel is a registered trademark name for a blend of biodiesel with traditional heating oil. Are you talking about blending biodiesel only or do you have other renewable fuels you are working with, such as renewable diesel?
Hammond: Right now, it is pretty much biodiesel. It is a more available and an economical option. Where that goes in the future depends on the overall market. For now, we are very happy with our choice of biodiesel fuel.
ICM: With biodiesel, good product is the key to getting this right, isn’t it?
Hammond: Absolutely, it needs to be ASTM D6751 biodiesel.
ICM: When did Star Group make this decision?
Hammond: Actually, it was late 2019 early 2020 when we were having some serious discussions about it. We met with Paul Nazzaro, Nazzaro Group, the National Biodiesel Board and Michael Trunzo, Shenker Russo & Clark, LLC, to talk about how we can make this happen. Nazzaro has been a great resource. He and his team have worked side-by-side with us. After those meetings, we just made the commitment and said, “we cannot keep talking about it, we have to get it done.”
Early in 2020, we started having meetings with some of the major suppliers about it, then COVID-19 hit. It put everyone in a tailspin for a bit, fortunately, we have been able to work through that. This past winter, our goal was to have all our New England companies’ customers (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) on B20. Because of COVID-19, some concerns about supply issues and some infrastructure work had to be addressed, we wound up with about 60% of that territory receiving B20. Little by little, that keeps creeping up as we are able to build a network and fill in the gaps. We are feeling very positive about moving forward.
This coming season we are expanding into New York. We are looking to secure that area, Long Island, New York City, upstate New York, a little bit in New Jersey, and maybe even a little bit of Maryland as well. The last step would be to fill in the rest of our southern markets. We are planning to be delivering 100% B20 by 2023 to match the Providence Resolution* and I feel very confident.
ICM: Would you care to share who you getting your product from?
Hammond: We have agreements with Sprague, Global, Northville, quite a few folks.
ICM: You had one heating season where you had at least 60% of your New England customer base on B20. Is that right?
Hammond: Yes, it probably represented 15-18% of our total customers.
ICM: Can you tell me what the total is?
Hammond: We have about 400,000 heating oil customers.
ICM: That equates to something like 70,000 customers on B20 for the entire heating season. Did you come across any equipment or tank issues with the B20?
Hammond: Actually, it went very well. As we started to put things in place, it was not 100% just flip the switch on October 1, 2020. Throughout the summer of 2020 we had been adding locations. As we added a location, we watched it to see the impact. As we went through the winter, we could see it was almost a non-event. It was almost unnoticeable from a service standpoint, and we felt that to be good news.
We are currently working with John Batey from the Energy Resource Center and the Oilheat Manufacturers Association to analyze service records in more detail. We are trying to establish some benchmarks that we can watch as we go through this process, to see how it impacts delivery and service changes, if at all. I can tell you when I did a preliminary analysis of the amount of service calls per customer over a six-year period adjusted for weather, the results were slightly better as far as calls per customer. However, it was almost unnoticeable. We really feel positive about that.
ICM: You’re saying that after your preliminary analysis, you are not finding any real detriment with B20, maybe even a little bit improvement of service calls?
Hammond: Yes. I compared October through March results for the last six years. Interestingly, where I did find the first downtick in service calls was when we went to ultra-low sulfur fuel. When we ran the numbers, we saw a little bit of improvement and that improvement has been maintained through implementation of B20. That is what we expected and are we are certainly anticipating going forward.
As we get the higher blends, there may be some challenges. I am sure the whole industry will work through them. Right now, everything looks pretty good.
ICM: You’re handling B20 at many locations. How are you blending, where are you blending and how are you storing?
Hammond: That was part of our challenge. We really needed the product to come pre-blended. We have been working with some of the major suppliers, and I know they really got behind this and are working to provide it for us. Since we have so many pick up points and locations, it would be very difficult for us to do our own blending at every single terminal. A good percentage of the terminals we pick up from, we do not own, we just have an agreement with them.
We need heating oil to be B20 when it hits the first terminal, or at least blended at that primary terminal, rather than relying on the secondary network to get that done. I do not feel we want to encourage people to get into splash blending and things like that. I really believe that the specs of heating oil should change in the future so that when you are purchasing oil, you are purchasing B20 at a minimum.
ICM: Because you are not storing and blending high blends of biodiesel, did you have to make any modifications in your infrastructure?
Hammond: No, we have not had to at this point. We have looked at some things we can do with some of terminals and if we need to, we certainly will. At this point, in most of the areas, especially in New England, we are picking up at the first supply point on the water, terminal, etc. They are blending it right there for us.
ICM: Your company is publicly owned and traded. You have stockholders, unlike most oil companies that are privately owned. How was the move to biodiesel presented to the board or the stockholders and what was their reaction?
Hammond: Certainly our board supports what we are doing. They understand and they believe it is the right thing to do. Obviously, we disclose these things in our public 10K reports and everything else, so it is out there. However, we have not received too many questions from stockholders.
ICM: You have not really identified yourselves as “Going Green”?
Hammond: What we really wanted to do in the first phase, through the New England area and before we overcommitted or put ourselves out there with bold announcements, was to make sure we could consistently provide this product. I think we are at that point now. Having gone through last winter, we feel very confident that we can continue to provide this product and really promote it. I think we have a lot of customer education that we are looking to do.
ICM: Before we get to the customer, have your employees been educated on this, especially your service technicians? Was there anything you had to overcome there?
Hammond: When I had early discussions with Paul (Nazzaro) we talked about what an important issue employee communication and education was and that there were some deep concerns about Bioheat® fuel that ran through many in the service tech community. The good news is, Paul and his team, and others like you, have done a lot of work on this. Everything has come a long way.
I think it was a good opportunity for us to dispel a lot of the myths and rumors that were out there. This was chance to update everyone on where we are today with equipment versus where we were 10 years ago.
We also held informal meetings with the technicians and other employees. We let them talk and ask questions and really take them through everything that has evolved to where we are today. That, combined with the fantastic support from our entire management team, has made this smooth.
You asked earlier about service issues, and I said it was unnoticeable, but we had a couple of things happen that people right away jumped and said, “it is the biodiesel”…but it was not. Once we clearly communicated what the real issue was, everyone was fine again. There are always going to be those people waiting for the shoe to drop, but overall, they reacted very well and it has gone pretty smoothly. With Paul’s team, and having other people, like John Levy and everyone else I mentioned, active and available so it is not me telling them what I heard, it is coming from the source. That has helped.
Additionally, we have just completed a series of high-level training sessions for all our management employees throughout our entire footprint. Once again, Paul and his team have been great. They took us through all the communications: What is Bioheat® fuel? Where does it come from? Why we should be moving forward with this product and what is the industry doing to get on board? What is our company doing? I have been receiving very good feedback from a lot of the attendees.
We have had local management teams asking for more specifics about certain items, whether it is our fleet mechanics or our delivery operations. It is really starting to pick up momentum.
ICM: Star Group has about 400,000 retail accounts, around 70,000 of which have already been using B20. Did you have a consumer marketing campaign? And if you did, what is your customers’ reactions?
Hammond: As I mentioned earlier, the initiative in New England was somewhat of a test. We wanted to make sure, before we marketed the benefits of Bioheat® fuel, that we could actually get our supply. We also wanted to make sure that operationally we had no challenges that we could not work through. We did not do a lot of marketing this past winter. But now, we have starting to do that over the last month or so.
Our first foray into marketing was external customer communications on Earth Day. We have planned a series of customer emails, leave-behinds and invoice stuffers targeting the questions: What his Bioheat® fuel? What are its advantages? How does it help the environment? How will it help me as a consumer? We also want to address the things that they are hearing about electrification. We feel that if they are educated properly, many of them will choose to stay with our product.
ICM: The electrification plan you mention is the strategy in many states to convert people from fossil fuels to electric heat pumps, and in these plans, the electricity will be generated by renewable sources. That is a long way down the road and may not ever be feasible. There are public policy makers in many states who have yet to even accept a low-carbon liquid fuel, like biodiesel or renewable diesel, as a viable solution in their road map to zero carbon. Are you getting into the legislative action side of it?
Hammond: We are certainly supportive of that and we typically look to someone like Michael Trunzo who has done a lot of work with us. Obviously, we are supporting the National Energy Fuels Institute and its efforts.
From a financial standpoint, we are putting our money where we need it to be. I think we have the right people as a resource for our industry to have those discussions. I have had several meetings with different legislators to explain to them how we are a big part of the solution. I think we all must be active in that. We certainly support all the efforts that everyone has been trying to do in that regard.
ICM: Star Group, which has brands such as Petro and others, is such a large company, with 400,000 customers. Do you think you can have an impact on the market to move the needle for low carbon fuels?
Hammond: We certainly hope that happens. In many discussions over the years, whether it is through our local organizations or state associations, we were reminded of our size and influence. We do not really try to influence the market, but we do support the industry.
We do not try to act like everything is about us, but it is funny that we keep being reminded that everyone is looking at us. We do feel that responsibility and we do feel that we need to take a leadership position. We are hoping that it moves the needle a little bit with some of the suppliers, and I think we are seeing that. I also hope it moves other companies that may be sitting on the fence. We really believe the whole industry needs to do it.
ICM: What about higher blends? Do you have plans to go beyond B20?
Hammond: Yes, absolutely. We know, like everyone else, B20 is not going to be enough. We know that we are going to have to go to higher blends. We think, with the timetable that has been laid out with initiatives like NEFI’s Providence Resolution and the milestones for higher blends it sets, it is certainly achievable. We certainly will be right there with everyone else. We are going to look at our operations once we get past B20 in all areas. We are not waiting for those next milestones. We are going to try to do whatever we can, if we can get supply, to move to higher blends earlier. If everyone in the industry works together, I really think we can meet those goals.
ICM: If you could give a message for those in the industry who think that this is unnecessary, what would it be?
Hammond: We are way past the point of should we or maybe—we must do this. I do not know how much more evidence we need; you see it almost every day. You cannot get away from it. Climate change is being interwoven into every facet of our life. Our industry is one of the key targets and if we do not get on-board, we are going to get left behind.
There are so many benefits for our industry to move to higher blends of Bioheat® fuel. It is the right choice for so many of our customers out there and I think we’d be doing them a disservice if we allow them stay where they are, putting them in a position where they will not have a choice. They will have to move to electric or heat pumps or some other source when that is not the right thing to do. There is a positive answer here, but doing nothing at this point is not an option. I certainly understand that there may be some small retailers out there who do not think they have the resources to do this, but the options are not good at this point. The earlier we can make this move, the better off it is going to be for everybody. I really believe that in the end, they are going to be very happy that they made the right choice. ICM
Bioheat® fuel, Bioheat Plus® fuel, and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel are poised to replace heating oil and save an industry from extinction in the fight against climate change
Yuletide carolers probably won’t be making their revelous rounds this holiday season, given the pandemic, but old man winter is already knocking at the door. Maybe we can’t be with our loved ones to give them their holiday gifts in person this year, but we can give our global family the gift of cleaner air, carbon reduction, sustainability, local jobs, and support for small businesses and farmers alike by using Bioheat® fuel?a blend of biodiesel and ultra-low sulfur heating oil (ULSHO).
Today, three tiers of Bioheat® fuel are well-defined and possess registered trademarks, and each brings its own set of benefits to the table. Bioheat® fuel is a 2 to 5 percent blend of biodiesel in ULSHO. Bioheat Plus® fuel consists of a 6 to 20 percent blend. Bioheat Super Plus® fuel ranges from 21 to 99 percent biodiesel in ULSHO or B100, which is 100 percent clean-burning biodiesel-the ultimate coup de grâce for the dirty image of heating oil. But two decades ago, after the concept of blending biodiesel into heating oil was first conceived, its parameters were rather nebulous.
The idea of commercializing biodiesel blends in heating oil in the U.S. and calling it Bioheat® fuel was the brainchild of one man, Paul Nazzaro, president of Advanced Fuel Solutions and supply chain liaison to the National Biodiesel Board. He called a meeting in the basement of his Massachusetts home-appropriately next to his oil tank-with Steve Howell, then the NBB technical director and president of Marc IV Consulting, and Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association (formerly the Massachusetts Oil Heat Council).
This was a Yalta Conference of sorts, but instead of three allies meeting to discuss the future of post-World War II Europe, Nazzaro, Howell and Ferrante were to discuss what would ultimately become the future of the oilheat industry-they just didn’t know it at the time. Nazzaro simply wanted to improve the quality and image of heating oil and build new market demand for biodiesel.
“Paul is a marketing genius,” Howell says. “His mission was to rebrand dirty heating oil as a new product made by American farmers that burns cleaner, is better for equipment and allows it to compete with natural gas.” Back then, natural gas was the main threat to the oilheat industry, not electrification as we see today.
Heating oil endured many challenges, particularly with fuel quality. “Customers saw heating oil as prehistoric, dirty and linked to Big Oil,” Nazzaro says. “They were losing confidence in the fuel, not with their dealer.”
Like the purloined letter, sometimes the best ideas are hidden in plain sight. If biodiesel was so great for diesel engines, Nazzaro thought, then why couldn’t it provide those same benefits to heating oil?
He pitched the idea to Howell and Ferrante but had no idea what to call it. “I knew we had to use a different name,” he says. “I said I’d call it Bioheat® fuel just to differentiate it from biodiesel. The first time the word Bioheat® fuel was uttered was in my basement.”
Ferrante had just gotten to know Nazzaro and took the reins at MOHC. “Without trying to sound dramatic, this was career-changing for me,” Ferrante says.
From there, technical discussions ensued. “I have a letter of memorandum, dated 2003, which was my first communication to industry technical leaders on what we were trying to do, asking if they were willing to collaborate,” Nazzaro says. “This was my Declaration of Independence.”
The name Bioheat® fuel was trademarked, and the soybean groups and NBB were excited about a new multibillion-gallon market. “The pitch was a fireball,” Nazzaro says. “We lit the world on fire. But it was like herding cats with 5,000 fuel dealers in 23 states. So, I narrowed my focus to the Northeast.”
In the beginning, Bioheat® fuel was a generic term of any blend of biodiesel with heating oil. “At one point, people were putting in a half a percent and calling that Bioheat® fuel,” Howell says. “Paul didn’t like that, so we picked a minimum of 2 percent,” a floor to add lubricity lost to desulfurization.
Since those early years in Bioheat® fuel, the world has changed. While environmentalism and the fight against climate change were well-established movements even then, the laissez-faire political attitude toward global warming-along with how much time the scientific and regulating communities believed we had to reduce carbon emissions-disappeared. Urgency has taken the place of procrastination.
Recognizing the existential threat of this change, in 2019 a coalition of Northeast heating oil associations adopted the “Providence Resolution,” which calls for a 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2023, 40 percent by 2030, and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. They plan to achieve this, for the most part, with Bioheat Plus® fuel and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel.
B20 will provide the 15 percent carbon reduction needed in 2023, while B50 will cut 40 percent of carbon emissions by 2030. By 2050, B100 made from low carbon-intensity feedstock will get the heating oil industry to 80 percent carbon reduction. Howell says other measures, such as carbon offsets, will be needed to achieve net-zero status. NBB is undertaking major efforts in this regard.
“This resolution has been fully vetted by two independent consultants,” Ferrante says. “Kearney did its research and concurred this can be done, and NORA commissioned a report concluding the same. Paul, he laid out a vision back then that has come full circle today. Much of what was talked about then is happening now. He’s truly a visionary.”
An important point consumers and regulators must know is that carbon-reduction goals can be attained while using the same equipment in their houses now. “They can get to the same goals faster, easier, and without the high capital costs and potential issues associated with electric heat pumps,” Howell says.
Furthermore, studies show that some carbon reduction today is better than more carbon reduction tomorrow. Howell likens it to financial investments and compounding interest. “The detriment of carbon gets exponentially worse if you keep doing what you’re doing while you wait for a silver bullet,” Howell says. “We are better off with 15 percent carbon reduction now with B20 while waiting for other technologies to develop.”
Howell says another factor to consider is social and environmental justice. “The less fortunate and socially disadvantaged are also heating oil users,” he says. “They don’t have $25,000 to invest in an electric heat pump.” Bioheat Plus® fuel, however, costs the same as traditional fuel oil, more or less.
Technical standards for Bioheat® fuel and Bioheat Plus® fuel are already in place, thanks to ASTM work completed by Howell, NBB, NORA and others. For more than a decade, the heating oil standard, ASTM D396, has allowed up to 5 percent biodiesel, just like in on-road diesel fuel’s D975 spec. Later, blends of 6 to 20 percent (Bioheat Plus® fuel) were also incorporated into D396, but as a separate grade. “We’re working on standards for blends above B20 now,” Howell says.
In the Northeast, 17,000 oilheat systems already use B50 and higher blends, according to a NORA survey. “They wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t work,” Howell says. Technical standards cannot be set, however, on anecdotal evidence.
As such, NBB, NORA and the Bioheat® fuel technical community are conducting lab- and bench-scale work, along with field trials, to obtain information needed to secure technical standards for B50 and B100. But this work isn’t being done through ASTM-at least not yet, according to Howell.
NORA has created developmental fuel specifications for B50 and B100. The only difference between biodiesel’s ASTM D6751 specification and the developmental fuel spec for Bioheat Super Plus® fuel in B100 form is the oxidative reserve time. D6751 calls for a three-hour reserve (Rancimat test) whereas the B100 developmental fuel spec for Bioheat Super Plus® fuel is six hours. All other parameters in D6751 have been excruciatingly polished over the years, evidenced by nearly two dozen iterations and phenomenal biodiesel quality survey results recently.
Nazzaro says he received paperwork from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in November stating the Bioheat Plus® fuel and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel brands are now officially registered, roughly two years after their conception. “Customers are starting to use the labels,” he says. “Especially in Massachusetts, with the Alternative Portfolio Standard and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel qualifying for renewable thermal generation units.”
Before those trademarks can be fully embraced, Ferrante says the use of biodiesel in the heating oil retail marketplace must be expanded. “Incentive programs like in Massachusetts, mandates and low carbon fuel programs-these send a market signal to every player that this is real,” he says. “Once this happens, that’s a turning point. It’ll all flow from there. It’ll take some time, but we want to see it happen tomorrow. Time is of the essence.”
A warm house and cool planet are not the only gifts Bioheat Plus® fuel and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel can offer. Furnaces will be grateful for the gifts of lubricity and improved pump performance; less heat-exchanger fouling, leading to greater system efficiency and operational performance; less maintenance expenses; safer storage with Bioheat Super Plus® fuel’s higher flashpoint; less-offensive odor; and overall cleaner burn.
So, in the spirit of the holiday season, we may need to rewrite the song we all know and love to end something like this: “Three tiers of Bioheat® fuel, two blended fuels, and a warm house but not a warm Earth.”
In 2003, when I first uttered the term “Bioheat” in the basement of my home where I started my business, the concept had nothing to do with carbon taxation or climate change. I, along with countless others, helped to conceive and bring to market this product because we felt that it was a better, more marketable heating fuel for the industry. This is an industry in which I, and now my son, have invested our entire careers.