Sustainable Shipping Surges on the Great Lakes

Biodiesel is a readily available solution to decarbonize ports

The Great Lakes region is a marine shipping superpower. Each year thousands of vessels transport 90 million tons of cargo on the five Great Lakes, supporting 146,500 jobs.1 Commercial shipping serves more than 100 ports1 in eight U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.2 Although shipping brings great economic benefit to the Great Lakes, it is not without environmental concerns.

Vessel longevity is one factor that affects the environmental impact of shipping on the Great Lakes. Because freshwater ships are not subjected to the corrosive effects of saltwater, their useful lifespans can be 50 years or more. With vessel age comes greater potential for air pollution.

“Older vessels are less efficient and may still operate on exceptionally dirty fossil fuels like bunker fuel and heavy marine oil. One 80-year-old ferry still in operation on the Great Lakes even runs on coal,” explains Pete Probst, president of Indigenous Energy and technical director of the Michigan Advanced Biofuels Coalition (MiABC). MiABC is funded by the Michigan Soybean Committee.

Transitioning the marine fuel supply to biodiesel will allow long-lived vessels with older technology engines to reduce harmful particulates and fight climate change.

“Even modern vessel emissions are improved by switching to biodiesel from diesel,” Probst says.

Ship engine emissions are especially problematic for ports in metropolitan areas, where poor air quality can contribute to major health problems. For example, Detroit has the second highest prevalence of asthma among major U.S. cities and has more cases of asthma than any other Michigan city.3

“Furthermore, shipping companies are feeling pressure from consumers and retailers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find more sustainable solutions,” Probst says. 

Although shipping companies are testing a variety of alternative fuels, biodiesel stands apart as a practical option to help decarbonize the shipping industry now. That’s because biodiesel is a readily available fuel that can be used in any diesel engine. Since it uses existing petroleum liquid fueling infrastructure, biodiesel can be deployed immediately.  

Handling any biodiesel blend requires the same adherence to proper housekeeping practices such as periodically checking fuel quality and keeping water out of fuel tanks.  Using B20 in colder weather is possible with additional cold flow additive to counteract the higher cloud point of biodiesel. 

Offering Biodiesel Blends

Warner Petroleum Company is a leader in providing biodiesel to marine markets on the Great Lakes – fueling not only cargo ships but also ferries, cruise ships and yachts. The company began offering biodiesel to Lake Michigan customers in Illinois and Indiana during the summer of 2022. During the 2023 shipping season, Warner Petroleum added biodiesel blends of B20 and higher to the marine fuel offering at its Waterfront Petroleum Terminal Company in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.

Interest in biodiesel is growing as Great Lakes marine fuel customers seek to become more environmentally conscious, says Jason Smith, vice president of supply and sales at Warner Petroleum. 

“We’re seeing about 25 percent of fuel sales incorporating biodiesel blends, mostly B20. But other shippers may have appetites for higher blends of B30 or B50,” Smith says.  “One Canadian shipping company is even testing B99.”

Smith reports that biodiesel has performed well in freshwater marine applications. When needed, Warner Petroleum connects customers with fuel experts to help with the transition to biodiesel.  “We want to assist our customers any way we can to help them meet their emissions standards,” Smith says.

Comparing Marine Fuel Alternatives

Given the existing Great Lakes port infrastructure, biodiesel is a more practical solution for decarbonization compared with other options. Renewable diesel (RD) and liquified natural gas (LNG) are two other fuels currently available to reduce emissions. But these fuels are limited in adoption. RD carries a premium per-gallon cost in the Midwest, and LNG requires costly vessel upgrades and new fuel infrastructure on land.

Other potential fuel alternatives for marine use are renewable methanol, ammonia and green hydrogen. But they are years away from widespread adoption, Probst says.

“Currently these alternatives don’t have production facilities in place to produce the large volumes required to replace fossil fuels,” Probst says. “In addition, they require investment in new or upgraded vessels and associated storage and fueling infrastructure.” 

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is readily available from fuel suppliers on the Great Lakes and can utilize existing diesel storage tanks, pumps and engines. The price of biodiesel typically tracks diesel prices within a few cents per gallon. In some states, incentives reduce the price of biodiesel even more.

Energy Density Considerations

Another factor to consider is the lower energy density of many alternative fuels, as summarized in the table below.

Comparing Energy Content of Alternative Liquid Fuels4.5

FuelEnergy Content (btu/gallon)Diesel Gallon Equivalent (DGE)  Additional Storage Capacity Required (relative to diesel)
Low Sulfur Diesel128,4881.00 
Biodiesel (B20)126,7000.991.01x
Biodiesel (B100)119,5500.931.07x

“The energy density of low sulfur diesel is tough to beat. But B20 biodiesel delivers nearly the same energy content per gallon as diesel,” Probst says. “In comparison, one gallon of methanol delivers less than half the energy as a gallon of diesel fuel. That means shippers must either make more fuel stops or double their fuel tank capacity to travel the same distance.”

LNG needs nearly twice the storage capacity as diesel fuel and brings the added expense of specialized storage tanks.  

B20 and B100 biodiesel are slightly less energy dense than diesel. B20 requires only 1% more storage capacity and B100 requires an additional 7% storage capacity compared to low sulfur diesel. Biodiesel blends have the advantage of using the same storage systems as diesel fuel.

Incentives For Growth

Smith expects marine demand for biodiesel to continue to grow, especially if Great Lakes states adopt incentives for biodiesel production, distribution and use.

“Shipping companies want to be environmentally responsible, but biodiesel has to fit their business plans and pay off economically,” he says. “Incentives in states like Illinois encourage businesses to invest in biodiesel. We support similar incentives in Michigan.”

  1. America Great Lakes Port Association Industry Overview | American Great Lakes Ports Association
  2. Lake Carriers’ Association. Lake Carriers’ Association | U.S.-Flag Great Lakes Fleet ( Accessed Nov. 9. 2023.
  3. 2023 Asthma Capitals: The Most Challenging Places to Live in America. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. AAFA 2023 Asthma Capitals Report September 2023 Accessed Nov. 9, 2023.
  4.  Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) Fuel Properties Comparison. Alternative Fuels Data Center: Fuel Properties Comparison ( Accessed Nov. 9, 2023
  5. Michigan Department of Revenue. Alternative Fuel GGE Comparison 3.5 cpg surcharge.pdf ( Accessed Dec. 6, 2023.
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