Part I: Home-Grown and Environmentally Friendly
If you don't already have a biodiesel filling station near you, you may see one sooner rather than later. Biodiesel use has increased more than 50-fold in the last five years and is predicted to continue its climb.
A biodegradable alternative fuel, biodiesel is made from renewable resources; the primary U.S. source is soybeans, though it can also be made from "yellow grease" (essentially used restaurant cooking oil) and other sources.
To Use Biodiesel You Need...a Diesel Though they have long been the de facto standard in Europe, diesel-powered passenger vehicles represented just 8 percent of U.S. vehicle sales in 2007, according to Edmunds data. Part of this disparity is due to Americans' memories of the rattling engines, belching tailpipes and cold starts of '70s-era diesels.
But thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency's National Clean Diesel Campaign, technologically advanced diesels are now being produced to meet new, strict emission standards and eliminate those headaches. (See "Diesel Reborn.") Expect to see new diesels soon from Audi, BMW, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan and VW. And as these vehicles hit the market, demand for diesel fuel — and biodiesel — will grow.
In fact, today's diesel engines provide 20-to-40-percent better fuel economy and offer more torque at lower rpm than their gasoline counterparts. But biodiesel fuel has additional advantages over petroleum diesel: Its production is more environmentally friendly, it helps further reduce emissions and it decreases American dependence on foreign oil — all without requiring any vehicle modifications.
Today, more than 600 major fleets use biodiesel, including all four branches of the United States military, NASA and state, city and private fleets. Biodiesel is also frequently used to run boats as well as farm, construction and manufacturing equipment. The National Biodiesel Board estimates that at least 2 billion gallons of biodiesel-blended fuel were used in the U.S. in 2006.
Biodiesel is rarely used in its pure form. Instead, it is typically blended with petroleum diesel and designated by the percentage of biodiesel in the mix. For example, B5 is comprised of 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent petroleum diesel. The most common biodiesel blends currently available are B20 and B2.
(Mostly) Better for the Environment There are numerous environmental benefits to using biodiesel, even in a blended form, over petroleum diesel fuel, although some of the environmental benefits are dependent on how the fuel is produced. Biodiesel is both non-toxic and biodegradable. It is nearly free of sulfur and carcinogenic benzene — two of the components of petroleum diesel that the EPA and state emissions boards regulated due to environmental and health concerns.
Using a biodiesel blend of B20 has been shown to reduce the output of certain emissions compared to using petroleum diesel. EPA research on heavy-duty diesel engines shows a 20 percent drop in total unburned hydrocarbons, an 11 percent decline in carbon monoxide and a 10 percent decrease in particulate matter when regulated B20 biodiesel is used.
This same study also indicates that NOx emissions rise slightly (2 percent) when using B20 biodiesel and that fuel economy is expected to decrease by 1-2 percent. (Tests by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, Colorado, however, showed that Blue Sun Biodiesel's B20 blend can actually reduce NOx by 4 percent.)
While these results are encouraging overall, many of today's new diesel-powered passenger vehicles already have significantly reduced unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide using petroleum diesel, thanks to engine improvements. Particulate matter emissions have been reduced since 2006, thanks to the new emissions standards that require the availability of low-sulfur diesel and mandate that automakers add particulate matter traps to their vehicles.
OK, but What About the Price? One factor limiting biodiesel's growth is its price, which is often about 1 cent per gallon more than petroleum diesel for every percent of biodiesel added to the blend. For example, B20 is on average 20 cents more per gallon than petroleum diesel. But the price is expected to decline, thanks to biodiesel's inclusion in several federal bills that have bipartisan support. "The biggest factor in future production is whether biodiesel gets a federal tax incentive extended," says Joe Jobe, executive director of the National Biodiesel Board. "If it is extended, the industry will continue to grow and keep biodiesel prices lower than they otherwise would be, which helps with domestic energy security."
The federal low-sulfur diesel fuel standards that went into effect in 2006 may also give biodiesel a boost. They state that biodiesel may be used in low percentages in all diesel fuel or as a fuel additive to increase the lubricity of petroleum diesel. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Department of Energy's premier laboratory for renewable energy research and development, estimates that biodiesel could one day replace 10 percent of the petroleum diesel we use today — an amount that the biodiesel advocates find encouraging.
Said Jobe, "That may not seem like a lot, but 10 percent of the on-road diesel fuel this country uses would be 380 million gallons a year." The biodiesel industry's shorter-term goal is "5 by 15," or for biodiesel to make up 5 percent of the diesel fuel market by 2015. "If we could meet just 5 percent of our nation's diesel fuel needs, that would be the equivalent of the amount of diesel we make today from oil that we import from Iraq," Jobe said. "So it is quite significant."
A map of retail biodiesel locations can be found at the National Biodiesel Board Web site.