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Why the environment cannot wait for an electric future

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We must act now to avoid the worst effects of global warming, and diesel fleets can do their part by switching to lower-carbon fuels today. Source: Renewable Energy Group.

This article is sponsored by Renewable Energy Group.

Climate experts agree that time is of the essence. We must make "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes" to limit global warming by 2030 or the results could be irreversible, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

In the transportation sector, however, much of the current focus is on electric vehicles. EVs do hold a lot of promise, but in many applications, such as commercial trucking, the technology cannot meet current performance and financial requirements. The result is that fleets are continuing to run on petroleum diesel and delaying carbon reduction strategies. 

They don’t need to. There are clean fuels that work in existing diesel vehicles with no modifications required, such as biodiesel and renewable diesel. Not only do they work, but they also offer significantly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than petroleum diesel.

In fact, using the highly regarded California model to calculate the carbon intensities (CIs) of fuels, known as CA-GREET, Renewable Energy Group calculated the CI reductions for our best-in-class biodiesel versus the following options:

  • 88 percent v. ultra-low-sulfur diesel 
  • 85 percent v. compressed natural gas
  • 76 percent v. a passenger EV charged by U.S. grid average electricity (2019 average)

Those numbers may surprise you, but as we near 2021, no one should be surprised by the urgent needs of the environment. That’s why fleet operators, their customers, their investors and policymakers should look to fuel options that can make a difference right now. 

Invest in the environment

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat and make the planet warmer. They come from several sources, but in the U.S., the transportation sector is the top contributor at 28 percent. What’s more, from 1990 to 2018, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion in the transportation sector increased 24 percent in the U.S. 

One factor that is commonly overlooked but is critically important is the cumulative nature of greenhouse gases. Once in the atmosphere, they persist for many years, meaning every year’s GHG emissions add to previous years’ emissions. This is why negative impacts from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can increase dramatically over time.

Fortunately, the reverse is also true. Just like all of our GHG emissions have a cumulative multi-year negative impact, every emission we avoid has a cumulative multi-year effect — a beneficial one. 

An analogy is investing money for retirement. To use a common example, if you put $1,000 per year into a 401(k) with an 8 percent rate of return, you wouldn’t have $10,000 after 10 years. You’d have almost $14,500 — and the first year’s $1,000 deposit would have contributed almost $2,000 to the 10-year total, while the 10th year’s $1,000 would have contributed only $1,000 to the total.

This is why retirement professionals advise us to start saving when we’re young rather than waiting until we’re older. And it’s why waiting to adopt cleaner-burning fuels will dramatically decrease the cumulative emissions savings fleets could start banking now.

Instead of waiting, commercial and public fleets should seek out lower-carbon fuels they can use today.

A simple step today

Chief among these options is biodiesel. It’s a well-established, cleaner-burning alternative to petroleum diesel made from renewable resources that are typically waste or byproducts from other industries, including recycled cooking oil, waste animal fats and byproduct vegetable oils. These feedstocks, as they’re called, are directly or indirectly derived from plants, with their energy coming from the sun, not fossil resources.

A newer way of using biodiesel is blending it with renewable diesel into a single fuel with better properties than either fuel by itself. Renewable diesel is made from similar feedstocks as biodiesel, but it has a different production process and different specifications. Renewable diesel can be a good fuel alone and with petroleum diesel, but one issue is availability. There’s much less U.S. production of renewable diesel than biodiesel. Combining the fuels helps fleets increase the amount of renewable fuel they can access and often provides lower carbon intensity than the renewable diesel can by itself. And all of these blends work in all existing diesel vehicles. 

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Renewable Energy Group is North America’s largest producer of biodiesel, a renewable fuel that cuts greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86 percent compared with petroleum diesel. Source: Renewable Energy Group.

Whatever fuel is being used, its full lifecycle should be taken into account when considering its environmental impact. This is what California does as part of its progressive climate policies, and the state has determined that biodiesel and renewable diesel are two of the most sustainable fuel options. 

This is one reason California fuel distributers and fleets have embraced biodiesel. From the first year of the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard in 2011 through 2019, biodiesel usage grew 1,588 percent. The cumulative reduction in GHG emissions in that period was 9.3 million metric tons of CO2 — equivalent to an average passenger vehicle driven 23.1 billion miles, or 10.3 billion pounds of coal being burned. Biodiesel is widely used beyond that California’s borders, though. Among the other states with the highest biodiesel usage are Texas, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota, Illinois and Oregon. Biodiesel consumption increased 597 percent in the U.S. over the past decade. This is impressive growth, but more could be done.

The other part of the equation that makes biodiesel blends a great option to start reducing emissions immediately is that they can be used in existing diesel vehicles. No new equipment is needed. Also, fuel retailers and private fueling locations can use the same infrastructure they already had for traditional diesel.

This ease of adoption is important because the nation’s medium- and heavy-duty fleets still overwhelmingly run on internal combustion engines. For example, 97 percent of Class 8 trucks (think: semi-trucks) relied on diesel fuel in 2019. These trucks will be on the road for years to come. 

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Because of its low carbon intensity, biodiesel is one of the most widely used alternative fuels in California and is common at truck stops and other fueling locations. Source: Renewable Energy Group.

Another factor is that even some ardent supporters of EVs acknowledge that electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are much further from viability than electric passenger vehicles. And in some trucking applications, electric may not be practical for decades, if ever. 

Long-haul truckers, for example, often travel more than 600 miles a day, beyond the range of existing battery technology. Battery weight and the amount of space they take up is another concern for haulers, where vehicle weight and cargo capacity are critical to profitability. 

A call to action

None of this should be misunderstood as an argument for inaction or for not continuing to explore the use of electric trucks. No single transportation energy source is a panacea for climate change, and Renewable Energy Group supports an integrated energy management approach in which fleets explore all options that meet their specific needs.  

What I am calling for is urgent action. Please do what you can to encourage fleets to reduce their harmful emissions immediately by using more of the lower-carbon fuels that are available. 

By starting to save today, we can have the biggest beneficial impact on the climate crisis that deserves our full attention right now.  

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