Midwest Biodiesel Success Stories

The rising demand for higher biodiesel blends and success stories among Midwest fleets were the topics of a recent Clean Fuels Alliance America podcast.

Jennifer Weaver, OEM market development manager for Clean Fuels, was joined by Bailey Arnold, American Lung Association director of Clean Air Initiatives, and Pete Probst, president of Indigenous Energy, to weigh-in on the biodiesel growth.

Why is the expansion of biodiesel important?

Weaver: Despite the headlines and what you might hear, electric vehicles are not going to be able to just show up tomorrow and be the end-all be-all for every fleet.

There are a whole lot of medium- and heavy-duty fleets out there that are still relying very heavily on diesel vehicles and diesel engines. About 76% of all commercial vehicles in the U.S. are powered by diesel engines and powertrains.

Of the big Class A over-the-road semi-tractor trailers, 97% of those have diesel engines; 77% of transit buses have diesel engines, and 90% of school buses.

These are big rigs that are doing a lot of work. They’re hauling heavy loads across long distances in remote areas on time-sensitive schedules, and those kind of duty cycles just don’t always lend themselves well to electrification as a decarbonization strategy.

They also tend to stick around for a long time. These are very durable engines and equipment, and they’re often in a fleet for 10, 15 years or more.

So, there’s a lot of them out there and fleets are really struggling with how do we meet requirements with state and federal legislation or a company objective, but not have to break the bank on having to reinvent our fleet.

Renewable biodiesel is another low-carbon fuel that we don’t see a lot of yet in the Midwest, but very prevalent on the West Coast. We’ll probably see some evolution of that into other markets here in the Midwest.

Probst: Thank you to Clean Fuels and to the soybean farmers that have invested their checkoff dollars over the years to make these fuels a reality. Without them, we wouldn’t be in this career that we’re in today, and I’m thankful for them every single day.

Weaver: It’s such a great success story here in the Midwest and farm belt where a lot of these feedstocks are grown and processed to then be able to use them as feedstocks for fuel that is making vehicles and fleets run that much cleaner.

Probst: It supports the farmers in the community that I grew up in. Those are my neighbors and without this industry they wouldn’t be making nearly what they’re making on their bottom line today. This industry has really supported our farmers and continues to throughout all these years.

What is your role at the American Lung Association?

Arnold: I focus on decarbonizing the transportation sector through the implementation of alternative fuels and technologies. I have a particular focus on the adoption of biodiesel and now renewable diesel.

My role allows me to provide outreach and information to fleets that are looking to decarbonize because there’s a lot of information out there that isn’t necessarily correct or there’s a lot of folks that don’t necessarily know what’s going on.

That’s where I get to step in and provide that information and help guide fleets to make the right choice for their fleet. In a lot of cases, that’s biodiesel.

Are there limitations to what diesel-powered vehicles can use biodiesel and how does use impact emissions?

Weaver: Biodiesel and renewable diesel can be used in any diesel engine. It’s a very low-carbon solution and that’s why fleets are taking a fresh look at it because it’s kind of an easy button when it comes to what you can do to decarbonize your fleets. You can put just a different fuel in your existing tank.

According to the EPA, biodiesel is considered an advanced biofuel. Advanced biofuels are renewable fuels that have lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions that are at least 50% less than baseline GHGs from diesel fuel.

In fact, B100, or 100% biodiesel, can reduce those GHGs by more than 74% on average compared to diesel fuel.

It’s just a really easy solution, and your unique experience with the American Lung Association is also seeing the health benefits that can come from using lower carbon fuels.

Arnold: It’s amazing when I talk about the fact you can get a 74% or even higher percentage of carbon reduction overnight.

You kind of see the light bulb turn on in a fleet manager’s eyes and they say, “Wow, can I really do this?” That’s when you know you’ve got them.

That’s when you share all this wealth of information we have from the industry and our personal experiences with the fuel. That’s what sells it at the end of the day and it’s a decision the fleet manager can feel good about.

Both of you are involved in B20 Clubs. Can you tell us more about those programs?

Arnold: We have the B20 Club of Illinois and B20 Club of Indiana. They are collaborations between the American Lung Association and the Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program and the Indiana Soybean Alliance, respectively.

At their cores, basically what the clubs do is partner with fleets to recognize their use of biodiesel, renewable diesel or sustainable aviation fuel. They are definitely growing and emerging fuels that we’re looking at now.

We used to be focused just on biodiesel and we’ve now expanded our views and our focus to include those fuels, as well.

We partner with fleets that are using it in everything from over-the-road trucks to transit buses to marine vessels, locomotives, anything you can think of that’s powered by a diesel engine, we’ve probably got an example that’s running on biodiesel or another fuel.

We also partner with clean fuel producers, fuel marketers, nonprofits and other groups that support the expanded use and production of clean fuels in Illinois and Indiana. I think that’s inspired some other groups to go out there and start to do the same.

Probst: We’ve been working with the Michigan Soybean Committee on a project, the Michigan Advanced Biofuels Coalition. This is basically a coalition of stakeholders anywhere from energy producers to transporters to end-users focused on promoting biodiesel, renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel.

When we first started this project, we weren’t really anticipating this, but it make sense when you think about Michigan being almost entirely surrounded by water. There’s a lot of marine activity now.

There’s a lot of interest in biodiesel as a direct replacement for regular petroleum diesel in marine navigation. We’re excited to see where that goes, too.

Another success story in the Midwest is the work being done with the Chicago Park District to bring them onboard with biodiesel. Pete works as a consultant with the park district, right?

Probst: This is a pretty exciting program. We’re in the 10th year of running a high-blend biodiesel program operating in Chicago. A fueling site is located on the South Side.

We have two underground storage tanks. One has straight diesel and one that we receive pure biodiesel directly from the manufacturer. We have a blending dispenser and with that we can set the blends to whatever we want.

When we started the program, we were down to 10% and 15% blends. We wanted to start slow and make sure that we didn’t have any issues, and we did not, so we increased the blends steadily over the course of a couple of years until we got to a B50 blend.

This is unmodified equipment. We didn’t have any co-flow issues because we were only doing these blends in spring, summer and fall.

A lot of other fleets sort of draw the line at B10 or B20, but we’re able to go to a lot higher blends. It’s a wide range of different vehicles — landscaping equipment, tractors, wood-chippers, riding lawn mowers, garbage trucks, forestry trucks.

We got some grant money from the Illinois Soybean Association and American Lung Association that allowed us to get an Optimus Technologies retrofit on some garbage trucks.

Optimus Technologies developed a fuel system that enables diesel engines to run almost entirely on renewable biodiesel.

These are heavy-duty trucks that get a lot of use. We’ve been running B100 in those and we expanded the program to get two more garbage trucks and three forestry trucks.

This really boosted our biodiesel blends to the point where last year when we crunched the numbers we used 60% biodiesel on average across the fleet that operates from that fueling site on the South Side of Chicago.

Can you highlight some of the other fleets you’ve worked with through these programs?

Arnold: Between Illinois and Indiana, we work with over 40 fleets that use B20 and higher blends of biodiesel, including blends like B30, B40, B100.

They’ve run that gamut from CityLink mass transit in Peoria to Ozinga, a very large concrete and construction company in the Chicago area, to the Village of Oak Park, Illinois, to Indianapolis, Indiana.

We have also have water vessel fleets that run on B20 to B30 all year.

Since 2014 when we launched the B20 Club of Illinois and including data from the B20 Club of Indiana which launched in 2020, we’ve provided over $31 million in health benefits just by using B20 and higher drop-in blends of biodiesel. That’s in well over 4,000 vehicles.

On top of that, they’ve used 123.8 million gallons of B20 or higher blends and that’s provided a carbon reduction equivalent to planting more than 3.6 million trees.

That’s phenomenal just by doing a drop-in fuel. You don’t have to change anything, there’s no expensive equipment.

That’s why these fleet members that we work with are award-winning fleets. They’re award-winning fleets, award-winning fleet managers because they are the cream of the crop and their first alternative fuel was biodiesel.

Now they’re excited to go higher. They’re ready for B30, B40 for those that aren’t doing it, and they’re ready for B100.

Originally adapted from the Clean Fuels Alliance America Better. Cleaner. NOW! Podcast by Illinois AgriNews, June 3, 2024. Updated for purpose and clarity June 7, 2024.

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