Why Biodiesel May Not Be the Miracle Fuel You Think

This article was written by Oilprice.com -- the leading provider of energy news in the world. 

Nine years ago, U.S. President George W. Bush passed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) with the goal of lessening America's dependence on foreign oil supplies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The RFS mandated that a certain percentage of transportation fuel sold in the U.S. contain ethanol, which is mostly produced from corn. Two years later, the standard was expanded to include biodiesel, derived from vegetable oils such as rapeseed or palm oils.

With more retailers being incented to offer biodiesel, and regular diesel becoming nearly extinct for owners of diesel-fueled cars, it is important to ask whether biodiesel actually helps or harms diesel-fueled vehicles. And are the environment benefits as great as we're led to believe?

The U.S. and Europe have both implemented government programs to mandate the increased use of biofuels. In Europe, the Renewable Energy Directive requires that 10 percent of transportation fuels come from renewable sources by 2020. In the States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a biofuel mandate each year that mandates the proportion of biofuel that must be blended with regular gasoline.

Several U.S. states have implemented laws to encourage the use of biodiesel. Illinois has one of the most generous incentive programs, exempting biodiesel blends of B10 or higher from the 6.25 percent state excise tax. President Barack Obama's home state is the leading producer and consumer of biodiesel, with B20 biodiesel now the standard diesel fuel sold at pumps.

However, an article published by The Diesel Driver notes that, despite EPA mandates to create more biodiesel, and state incentives to sell it, the inconsistency of biodiesel and the varying strength of its blends are causing problems.

The article notes that most U.S. modern diesel cars are designed to use B5 biodiesel, and as a result, "using blends with as much as 20 percent biodiesel have caused problems ranging from check engine warnings to reduced fuel economy and outright engine failure."

Using high-percentage biodiesel in your diesel vehicle could, in fact, invalidate the warranty. Mercedes-Benz, one of five manufacturers of diesel-vehicles sold in the U.S., tells potential owners, "Any damages caused by the use of such non-approved fuels will not be covered by the Mercedes-Benz Limited Warranty."

Further, while engines that run on biodiesel do cause less air pollution than those fueled by regular diesel, their performance is actually worse, according to a fact sheet published by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, which says biodiesel has lower fuel economy than regular diesel, and reduces engine power and torque. Biodiesel can also leave deposits and cause clogging, especially in cold weather.

As for their environmental footprint, advocates for plant-based fuels argue that they are carbon neutral because they only release existing carbon dioxide, compared to fossil fuels, which add greenhouse gases.

But biodiesel loses ground when the total environmental costs of producing the fuel are taken into account. Nitrogen fertilizers applied to soils that grow crops to make biodiesel and ethanol emit nitrous oxide, a potent and long-lasting greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is released from soil when land is plowed for planting crops. There is also evidence that links biodiesel to higher tailpipe emissions of nitrous and nitrogen oxides.

Then, of course, there is the argument that land grown for plant-based fuels uses valuable farmland and water supplies that could be used for food production -- possibly causing crop shortages and driving up food prices. The European Parliament has recognized this potential downside and last year voted for a cap on "traditional biofuels" (those that could be used to produce food). EU legislators called instead for a switchover to making biofuels from alternative sources like seaweed and organic waste.

In sum, while using biodiesel and ethanol is definitely better than relying on hydrocarbon-based fuels, the environmental benefits may in fact be smaller than anticipated, or even negligible, when entire lifecycle emissions are taken into account.

Combine that with the constraints forced upon diesel car owners in states where the only fuel available is biodiesel, along with the potentially harmful impacts on engines, and there are valid reasons to question whether the promise of these 'cleaner' fuels measures up to the reality.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 12, 2014, at 2:29 PM, Maximizese wrote:

    That's because they're doing this all wrong! I use to make my own biodiesel out of filtered/recycled cooking oil from my local donut shop. My 2001 VW Golf TDI ran smoother with the biodiesel and I all was good. 2008 rolls around and my state made it illegal to collect waste vegetable oil because it was labeled a hazardous material. Labels started popping up all over the county on the collection containers claiming that the vegetable oil contents belonged to an oil company. The state of California requires an insurance license/policy to handle used vegetable oil. Many folks believed this was cooked up my politicians and big oil. Coincidentally, Shell, BP, Chevron, and Exxon/Mobil started doing a lot of algae research around the same time.

  • Report this Comment On August 12, 2014, at 2:58 PM, Jimvski1 wrote:

    When comparing biofuels to dino-fuel, the author points out the issues associated with producing the biofuels but what about the costs (both environmental and economic) of producing the dino fuel? There's no mention of the pollution and greenhouse gases produced from drilling, moving, and refining dino based oil. Very similar to the argument that electric vehicles produce no pollution. Although most likely it is less pollution, an electric plant somewhere must produce the electricity to run that vehicle. It could be coal or it could be nuclear. I believe the "cleanest" energy is solar, hydro, and wind. But each of those also have their environmental impact. Our challenge as a society, is to find the source of energy that has the least impact on our environment and make it economically feasible. I think it will be a combination of many: bio, solar, hydro, wind, along with new technologies around dino and even converting CO2 back to a fuel source.

  • Report this Comment On August 13, 2014, at 9:14 AM, weitzfc wrote:

    my cousin has been running his truck on bio-diesel for years with no problems. at about a tenth the cost . that's the real reason oil companies don't want the competition.

  • Report this Comment On August 19, 2014, at 9:40 AM, JessicaRobinson wrote:

    Readers - Don’t be Fooled. There are so many falsehoods and mischaracterizations in this essay it’s hard to know where to begin, yet not surprising that a petroleum publication would jump at the chance to disparage alternative energy sources.

    Though it often confused with conventional biofuel and its challenges, biodiesel is actually America’s only fully commercialized and readily available advanced biofuel. It simply does not have the same impacts as conventional fuel. Biodiesel has been found by the EPA to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent and by as much as 86 percent when taking into account ALL lifecycle emissions, “field to wheels,” of the production process – including inputs from farming. Additionally, biodiesel has the highest positive energy balance (5.54 : 1) of any commercially available fuel, returning 5.54 units of renewable energy for every one unit of fossil energy needed to produce it. Petroleum diesel, on the other hand, undergoes no such scrutiny, even though it has a negative energy balance of about 0.88 : 1 when accounting for its entire lifecycle.

    Counteracting the article’s assertion that production negatively impacts food prices, livestock producers such as the National Pork Producers Council have long been on record supporting biodiesel production because it reduces livestock costs – which ultimately benefits consumers. Biodiesel produced from soybean crops uses only the excess oil and none of the protein rich meal that is used in livestock feed. As a result, the meal from soy – a staple in animal diets – is less expensive today because of the demand for the natural oil in soybean-based biodiesel. Studies suggest that the savings as a result of biodiesel production can be as much as $25 per ton for animal producers that feed soy protein meal.

    Unfortunately, the article referenced from “The Diesel Driver” also contained a number of technical errors, which many in the press are simply repeating. Case in point:

    The article stated that most modern U.S. diesel vehicles are only designed to use B5 biodiesel blends, and higher blends could cause problems. In fact, while all manufacturers selling diesel vehicles in the U.S. market do indeed support at least B5 biodiesel blends, over 78 percent of those manufacturers also support up to B20 or even higher biodiesel blends in some or all of their equipment. For a summary of original equipment manufacturers (OEM) positions on biodiesel, visit http://www.biodiesel.org/using-biodiesel/oem-information/bio....

    At the request of the biodiesel industry, most U.S. manufacturers incorporated B20 into their design considerations as they were implementing new engine technologies to accommodate ultra-low sulfur diesel and the newly required particulate matter traps and NOx after-treatment technology required in 2004 and beyond. Only a few manufacturers, such as Mercedes, chose not to embrace anything over B5 even in the face of repeated urging by the biodiesel industry and their customers, and despite known initiatives advancing the auto and fuel industries toward blends higher than B5. The laws to move to blends over B5 in Minnesota have been on the books since 2008, and the tax incentive for Illinois, which encourages B11 and higher blends, has been in place since 2003. According to the Illinois Department of Revenue, about 55 percent of the state’s diesel market is now comprised of B11 biodiesel blends, and yet IL dealers show zero impact on service claims.

    The medium and heavy-duty engine companies, like Caterpillar and Cummins, have supported B20 for over 10 years now. Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and others all now approve of B20 in their diesel offerings, including the new Chevy Cruze diesel passenger car, and plan to continue doing so moving forward. Even some of the European passenger car companies like Volkswagen and Audi are now working with the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) on testing B20 in their vehicles, and allow the use of up to B20 in Illinois and Minnesota where blends over B5 are commonplace in the market.

    With today’s stringent ASTM specifications for biodiesel and rigorous industry attention to fuel quality, both engine makers and their customers can feel confident fueling up with biodiesel blends. The latest independent fuel survey by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) showed that over 95 percent of all biodiesel met the ASTM specifications for B100 prior to blending. Additionally, over 87 percent of the biodiesel in the U.S. marketplace is produced by BQ-9000 quality certified companies, and that number is steadily climbing as new companies achieve certification under the program.

    NREL also studied the NOx impacts of biodiesel and found there was no statistical evidence that the average NOx emissions from B20 are different than conventional diesel fuel. In other studies, NREL showed post-2010 diesel engines with NOx after-treatment systems in place had no NOx emissions difference between B20 and petrodiesel, and overall tailpipe NOx was reduced over 90% compared to 2004 model diesel engines. New diesel vehicles with the EPA required after-treatment catalysts now meet the same emissions regulations with ultra low sulfur B20 or petrodiesel as with gasoline or natural gas vehicles.

    (Source: Eur. J. Lipid Sci. Technol. 2009).

    Other performance characteristics of biodiesel were also misrepresented in your article. The BTU content, fuel economy and torque of biodiesel is similar to #1 diesel fuel, so the impacts on engine performance are similar to what a user would experience if they used conventional #1 diesel fuel instead of or in combination with conventional #2. #1 diesel fuel has been reported to have as much as 15% less BTUs, with common values around 5-10%, while pure biodiesel has around 3-8% less BTUs than most #2 diesel. Yes, this is a small difference, but it is totally consistent with #1 petrodiesel on the market and virtually undistinguishable in a 20% blend with petrodiesel, allowing for a seamless user experience between diesel fuel and biodiesel blends.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly for consumers, the reason why this topic is getting so much attention in the media is because biodiesel is creating competition for petroleum by providing diversity in the transportation fuels sector. The fact is that we’re never going to be able to drill our way out of our energy problems. Producing more oil at home isn’t going to improve the air we breathe and it’s not going to make us independent of the global events that ultimately determine the cost of a barrel of oil. We recognize that petroleum is priced by an international market. And that’s not going to change whether the oil is pulled out of North Dakota or shipped from Saudi Arabia. What we can do, however, is lessen our dependence on foreign oil and add diversity and stability to our domestic fuel supplies with the production and use of clean, renewable, environmentally sustainable biodiesel right here in the United States.

    And that, most would agree, is pretty miraculous.

    Jessica Robinson

    National Biodiesel Board

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