Aug. 18, 2015

Biodiesel Offers an Easy Alternative for Fleets

This was the perfect opportunity to move to something cleaner for the environment, and the results have exceeded our expectations. The fuel is clean and produced locally, the vehicles continue to perform well after the transition, and we are able to give back by sharing our experiences with others.      
Neil Hall, Metropolitan Sewerage District, Fleet Manager, Asheville, North Carolina

Fleets from every corner of the country are busting commonly held myths about biodiesel. They're discovering first-hand that the fuel is an easy-to-implement, renewable, and economically viable alternative to conventional diesel that can yield almost immediate results.

Biodiesel is produced from soybean oil, animal fats, or recycled restaurant grease. The fuel can offer significant emissions reductions and is helping the United States achieve its energy independence goals. Perhaps the most attractive advantage for fleets, however, is the scalability of biodiesel blend levels and low barriers to adoption.

With assistance from their local Clean Cities coalitions, fleets like American University in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Sewerage District (MSD) of Buncombe County in Asheville, North Carolina, are seeing the benefits of biodiesel in a variety of applications.

Manufacturer, Fuel Quality, and Specification Changes Clear New Paths for Biodiesel Implementation

Nearly 14 million vehicles on the road in the United States today are capable of using some blend of bio-diesel. Currently, all major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) support the use of at least B5 under their warranties, while nearly 80% of OEMs have approved the use of B20 or higher blends in at least some of their vehicles.

Every year, more OEMs approve B20 for use in their vehicles. Many OEMs have been long-time participants in the light-duty diesel vehicle market, and continue to produce diesel vehicles that are approved for B5 everywhere. A few companies even approve the use of B20 in some states. For example, the 2014 Ram 1500 was the first half-ton pickup truck introduced with a diesel option. Approved for B20 use, it won the "Best Pickup" award in Consumer Reports magazine. Also in 2014, General Motors (GM) introduced the diesel Chevrolet Cruze, the first diesel passenger car approved for B20 use nationwide.

New 2015 diesel models that are also OEM-approved for B20 include the Ram ProMaster cargo van, Ford Transit van, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. In 2016, GM's Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon will be joining the half-ton diesel pickup truck market, and both are B20-approved. For a complete listing of OEM position statements on biodiesel, as well as the current U.S. Diesel Vehicles List, visit the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) website (biodiesel.org/ using-biodiesel/oem-information).

In addition to advocating for the use of higher biodiesel blends, NBB has also continued its focus on maintaining fuel quality. NBB's BQ-9000 program is a voluntary national accreditation program that assists companies that produce, test, and supply biodiesel fuel. The program combines the industry standard for biodiesel, American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) D6751, with a rigorous quality program that includes storage, sampling, testing, blending, shipping, distribution, and fuel management practices.

At the end of 2014, 92% of the biodiesel produced in the United States came from BQ-9000 certified producers. Historically, BQ-9000 certification applies to any biodiesel manufacturer, marketer, or distributor that is willing to meet the program requirements.

At a conference in February of this year, NBB launched the final stage of the BQ-9000 program, a retailer certification. Currently, biodiesel blends of B20 or above are available at an estimated 300 retail locations nationwide, many of which will be able to benefit from this expanded program. BQ-9000 retail locations will be more appealing to customers looking for assurance that they are purchasing high-quality fuel.

"The BQ-9000 Retailer Program will now help to ensure fuel quality throughout the entire supply chain, down to the final consumer," said NBB's Scott Fenwick.

A Blend for All Seasons

Even in cold weather and high altitudes, biodiesel blends can be a viable alternative. The blend level can be altered seasonally to ensure the best performance year-round. In winter, biodiesel blends of up to B20 can be treated the way No. 2 diesel is—by using some No. 1 diesel in the blend to prevent gelling.

"Biodiesel that meets ASTM standards continues to perform well in very cold temperatures in blends up to 20%," said Fenwick. "This winter, we did not see any more cold weather operability issues with biodiesel than we did with diesel alone—in fact, we saw fewer."

"That said, fleets should work with their fuel supplier to be sure the gel point, blend level, and additives are appropriate for the conditions."

Biodiesel is also making inroads in other industries, and the evolution of ASTM standards is facilitating this growth. For example, ASTM voted to approve performance specifications (D396) for blends of 6% to 20% biodiesel with traditional heating oil. Also, the industry is overcoming a major barrier in the distribution of biodiesel blends via pipeline, thanks to revisions to ASTM D1655, an aviation turbine fuel standard. Increasing the trace amount of biodiesel that can be safely allowed in jet fuel, which is commonly transported by pipeline, opens the door to shipping biodiesel blends via the same U.S. pipelines that carry jet fuel. This will streamline the distribution process.

American University Shuttles with Biodiesel

When American University made the decision to incorporate an alternative fuel into its shuttle bus fleet in 2011, it was looking for a fuel that would reduce emissions, but also allow for an easy transition. Driven by the university wide goal to become carbon neutral, the Facilities Management Office's Operation and Maintenance Department evaluated various fuel and technology options, but quickly settled on a B20 blend.

Fast-forward to today, and the fleet's 10 large transit-style shuttle buses are using approximately 50,000 gallons of biodiesel a year, resulting in substantial petroleum reductions and cost savings. The University has also purchased a mobile fueling station, which ensured the availability of affordable, high-quality biodiesel without the inconvenience of fueling the vehicles off-site.

"Biodiesel has made great contributions to the overall sustainability program of our university," said Alef Worku, Shuttle Operations & Maintenance Manager. "We are excited to share our experience with others."

According to Worku, gaining support from the university administration, management, vehicle maintenance staff, drivers, and students has been critical to ensuring a smooth transition to the new fuel. The fleet also worked closely with permitting authorities, the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition (GWRCCC), and a local fuel provider to guarantee success.

As a stakeholder with GWRCCC since 2010, American University included the coalition from the beginning. The coalition helped connect the fleet with relevant stakeholders and information, which made the implementation easier.

"Ron Flowers [Clean Cities Coordinator at GWRCCC] has been instrumental in our success. He worked to bring us together with other fleets in the area, including universities and municipalities. The networking and information sharing have been invaluable," Worku said. Worku maintained that early collaboration with local regulatory agencies and authorities was also important, particularly because the university chose to implement a relatively unique mobile trailer to fuel their shuttle buses.

"Making the switch to biodiesel was much easier than we thought it would be, and there was ample informational assistance available," he said. "By pursuing the idea and bringing the right people to the table, including the community, we achieved what we originally thought was impossible."

The project was entirely funded by the University, and quick return on investment was key.

The mobile fueling station was the only upfront cost, but Worku says the resulting time efficiencies and cost savings are helping pay back this investment. Before the mobile fueling station, the University found that fueling the shuttles at local stations resulted in 25 to 30 minutes of lost productivity per vehicle, three times per week. Now, the mobile unit allows for fueling right on campus. American University also contracted with another GWRCC stakeholder, Tri-Gas Oil, which allows them to buy biodiesel in bulk, versus retail petroleum diesel. This has translated into an overall price-per-gallon savings—allowing the fleet to save more than $14,000 annually in productivity gains and fuel costs.

"We decided to switch to biodiesel because it is good for the environment and relatively easy to implement, but the productivity and cost savings have been icing on the cake," Worku said.

American University capitalized on lessons learned in their fleet and from others in their area to ensure success. Although there are many examples of fleets successfully using B20 in cold climates, the fleet opted to reduce its biodiesel blend to B5 from November to April. Tri-Gas Oil's involvement with the BQ-9000 program (see box on page 8) was also key, as other local fleets had advised the University to emphasize fuel quality. As a result, after testing the biodiesel on their own vehicles, Worku and his team began changing fuel filters (on both vehicles and fueling dispensers) more frequently. By taking advantage of these lessons learned, the fleet has had no recent issues with vehicle performance.

"The great thing about converting to biodiesel is that we didn't have to modify the bus engines, and the ongoing maintenance has been hassle-free," he said.

Metropolitan Sewerage District Demonstrates Long-Term Success

American University is not the only fleet sharing its successes with biodiesel. After more than a decade of biodiesel use, Metropolitan Sewerage District (MSD) has become a valuable resource to Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition (LSVC) and area fleets interested in using the fuel. While MSD originally switched its fleet to biodiesel in 2003 for the environmental advantages, the District has since benefited from low costs, both up front and through fuel price savings in some years. The wastewater treatment agency—a non-profit, publicly owned utility serving 52,000 customers—runs all of its 81 diesel vehicles on B20. This includes 70 pick-up, dump, and sewer vacuum trucks, as well as 11 pieces of off-road equipment. MSD currently uses more than 70,000 gallons of biodiesel per year, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 700 tons from 2010 through 2013 alone.

"This was the perfect opportunity to move to something cleaner for the environment, and the results have exceeded our expectations," said Neil Hall, MSD's Fleet Manager. "The fuel is clean and produced locally, the vehicles continue to perform well after the transition, and we are able to give back by sharing our experiences with others."

Among the chief reasons MSD chose B20 was for its versatility, but especially because the blend can be used in most vehicles (see box beginning on p.8). Like American University, the fleet transitions to a lower blend (B10) during the colder months of November through February. MSD is also working with a BQ-9000 producer, Blue Ridge Biofuel, which uses recycled cooking oil as a feedstock for its fuel. According to LSVC, in some years biodiesel has been sold in bulk to fleets in the region at an average $0.05 per gallon discount over diesel fuel. In 2012 alone, this translated to more than $3,500 in savings for MSD.

Biodiesel implementation has been a bottom-up effort at MSD; the staff made the case to upper management, and the Board of Directors approved the decision in 2003. The general manager keeps the Board up to date on the fuel's use, and the fleet manager ensures that mechanics are familiar with biodiesel maintenance procedures.

For instance, MSD found that when an older vehicle first transitions from diesel to B20, the fuel filters need to be changed within the first six months until the biodiesel cleans out the vehicle's fuel system. Some newer vehicles, however, require no additional filter changes. Otherwise, maintenance staff and drivers have not seen a noticeable change in performance. The fleet's on-site fuel tanks required an initial inspection but, because they were less than four years old, did not require cleaning before biodiesel was introduced.

"Everyone is always looking for a shoe to drop, but it has been a mostly pain-free experience," said Peter Weed, Director of Wastewater Treatment & Maintenance.

Weed added that MSD is committed to sharing its success with others. In the most simple way, MSD communicated this by donning all its biodiesel vehicles with a sticker that states, "This vehicle runs on biodiesel." Also, as a charter stakeholder, fleet representatives often speak at LSVC events and are on-hand to answer questions from fleets interested in switching to biodiesel.

For example, MSD assisted the City of Asheville in its decision to fuel vehicles with B5 in 2007, and eventually B20 in 2014, providing valuable advice about how to ensure fuel quality.

"MSD has always been very helpful," said Chris Dobbins, Fleet Services Consultant with LSVC. "They have consistently been a great resource."

The feeling is mutual: "The Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition team is excellent," Weed said. "They are always available to us and supportive of our work."

A photo of an old fuel oil delivery truck into a biodiesel-fueled water tanker. The utility has wrapped the truck in messaging that encourages customers to stop disposing of grease down the drain.