Ohio biodiesel by the numbers by the National Biodiesel Board.

The biodiesel (r)evolution

By Matt Reese and Dale Minyo

Biodiesel has its roots deeply planted in soybean fields around the United States, but the industry continues to evolve in new ways to make it more revolutionary than ever in today’s current climate change culture. 

“Today’s biodiesel is about 85 production plants across the country using waste or surplus fats and oils. Back 25 years ago when the industry was first conceived, it was a way to add value and find a use for excess vegetable oil, primarily soybean oil as a result of the soybean crush process,” said Kurt Kovarik, National Biodiesel Board vice president of federal affairs. “Soybean farmers grow soybeans for their protein, which is 80% of the bean. The other 20% is oil. As the demand for protein continues to go up we have to find a home for that surplus oil. Biodiesel is that home. For every bushel of soybeans, the demand for the soybean oil for biodiesel adds about 13% to the value of that bushel. You are getting more for your commodity because the biodiesel industry is creating demand and market for that soybean oil. At today’s prices, that is almost $2 per bushel.” 

Today’s biodiesel, however, is very different than the fuel of previous decades.

“Over that last 25 years, we have innovated to the point where soybean oil is about 50% of our biodiesel feedstock,” Kovarik said. “The other 50% is animal fats from the rendering process, used cooking oil which is collected and recycled from restaurants across the country and distillers corn oil, which is a byproduct of ethanol production. Last year our market was about 3 billion gallons, up from about 100 million gallons in 2005.”

With the Biden Administration at the helm, biofuels in general and biodiesel in particular are poised for big things.

“In his campaign, Biden talked about the need for advanced biofuels. USDA Secretary Vilsack is well-versed in the biofuels industry and he knows what we bring to the table. EPA Administrator Regan has said the same thing. He is committed to giving agriculture a seat at the table in terms of climate conversations and he is committed to recognize the role biofuels can play with this,” Kovarik said. “But they have missed a couple of opportunities to put those words into action in the American Jobs Plan on infrastructure — there was not much there for biofuels. And, in re-entering the Paris Climate Accord, the Administration had an opportunity to demonstrate how this country could find carbon savings and did not include biofuels. What will really matter is how this EPA will implement the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is the primary statute on the books that they can utilize to promote higher volumes of low carbon biofuels. They have a couple opportunities coming up this year to demonstrate their support through increased volumes under that program. We hope to see good things for biodiesel ahead.”

To make the most of the situation, the established, consistent biodiesel quality will be crucial.

“We need to understand that the biodiesel that exists today is not the biodiesel industry of 30 years ago where everybody was making it and the quality was not assured. Today we are a professional industry producing a high quality product. Today’s product has a quality assurance program,” Kovarik said. 

With a reliable supply, biodiesel is well positioned to expand with a focus on reducing carbon emissions.

“In terms of carbon emissions, depending on the feedstock that is used in making the fuel, it is cleaner compared to petroleum diesel on average of 74%. Imagine being able to put biodiesel in your tractor or combine or a city sanitation fleet or truck and immediately getting 75% better greenhouse gas emissions and nearly a 50% reduction in particulate matter. Those are tangible improvements in air quality and carbon reductions that are here and now through our fuel. We don’t need billions of dollars in infrastructure investment or expensive equipment modifications, all of that is unnecessary. We have a drop-in fuel that is able to achieve these significant benefits today, produced here at home and it improves the bottom line of Ohio’s soybean farmers,” Kovarik said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm in Washington right now about the next best thing. That appears to be electrification of the transportation fleet. But we need all solutions to de-carbonize transportation — that includes locomotives, truck fleets, construction equipment, maritime, and farm equipment. There is a whole host of needs for diesel fuel right now and the best low carbon solution is biodiesel or renewable diesel. We can start reducing that carbon today versus the investments in electric vehicles that may not come online for 10 or 15 years. There is a time value of this carbon reduction and that is the message we are trying to convey to legislators.”

Renewable diesel is a hydrocarbon that is indistinguishable from petroleum diesel made from the same feedstocks as biodiesel, but a different process. It is interchangeable with petroleum diesel.

The annual economic impact of the biodiesel and renewable diesel industry is $17 billion. It employs more than 65,000 Americans. In addition to the carbon and air quality benefits, a recent study demonstrated the substantial reductions in health care costs and outcomes that communities can achieve by switching to biodiesel.

Moving forward on the legislative front, NBB priorities include maintaining tax incentives for low carbon biofuels, supporting infrastructure to deliver more clean fuels to consumers, and optimizing the Renewable Fuel Standard to maximize environmental benefits.

“The biodiesel and renewable diesel industry is poised for substantial growth and can deliver carbon reductions, healthcare savings and jobs. Biodiesel and renewable diesel have cut more than 140 million tons of carbon emissions since 2010, through the RFS program and other policies,” Kovarik said. “Legislators have a lot of ambition to tackle infrastructure, climate and tax policy. This will be a critical year for them to bring some of their high priority policies across the finish line. We just are hopeful that homegrown biodiesel is included in infrastructure, climate or tax policy solutions.”

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