Is biodiesel really the best option?

by Lou Smyrlis

Many times I have used this column to promote green transportation practices. Not only are sustainable transportation practices the right thing to do, they are the smart thing to do. A quick look at diesel pump prices over the past few months is testament to the impact of our reliance on fossil fuels even for those who don’t want to consider the additional toll on the environment created by greenhouse gas emissions.

But we don’t need to remain slaves to fossil fuels or their high prices and environmental toll. One of the major advantages of the diesel engine is that it does not have to rely on diesel fuel or other fossil-based fuels. The diesel engine can be adapted to run on a wide range of renewable fuels that emit no excess carbon dioxide when used to power the truck. Using such renewable fuels, the engine’s combustion process would generate exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide as that absorbed by the source material during its growth. As Leif Johansson, CEO of the Volvo Group, pointed out a few years ago, “C02-neutral transport is not just a utopian dream.”

The options are many and range from hydrogen and biogas to methanol, ethanol and biodiesel.

The challenge is for government, energy producers and affected industries, such as trucking, to work together to choose the best alternative fuel options not just the politically expedient ones. The Volvo Group spent many years comparing the different options and published some very helpful data on the subject, which I always keep nearby.

When I look at those comparisons, however, and consider our own federal government’s biodiesel mandate, which kicks into effect this July, I wonder if we have truly chosen the best option. Biodiesel, which is produced from vegetable oils such as rapeseed, sunflower and soybean oil, does score well against other alternative fuel options when it comes to the technical complexity required to adapt vehicles for its use. It also scores well when considering how quickly and easily it can be introduced and integrated with existing systems. Infrastructure can be the greatest challenge to the introduction of a new fuel and biodiesel requires minor changes. Based on these two factors I can understand the initial attraction to biodiesel.

But biodiesel doesn’t score so well compared to other alternative fuels when considering several other important factors. The total “well to wheel” energy efficiency of biodiesel is middle of the road at about 17-19%.  (The well to wheel impact includes cultivation and harvesting of the raw material, its transport to the fuel production plant, production and distribution of the fuel to the refueling stations and its use in vehicles. The percentage given is the proportion of energy reaching the vehicle’s driven wheels.)

Its impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also rated as middle of the road because fossil fuels are currently used in its cultivation and production. Biodiesel also scores very low for its land use efficiency due to low average harvest yields and high fossil energy used to turn it into a fuel. It ranks lowest for its availability due to the need for crop rotation and relatively low yield per land area.

And in the rating that truck owners will likely care the most about, “well to tank fuel cost”, biodiesel does not score well against other alternatives – at best it’s about 30% more expensive in comparison to conventional diesel. In the US, biodiesel prices are running one to eight cents per litre above the price of regular diesel fuel.

That we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels is a no-brainer. But is biodiesel really the best option that Ottawa could have chosen?

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