Biodiesel is helping fuel New York City

The National Biodiesel Board shifted to a virtual format for their annual Big Apple Biodiesel Tour this year due to COVID-19. Soybean farmers from across the country were still able to see the unique ways biodiesel is being used in New York City. (Photo: Iowa Soybean Association)

Biodiesel big in the Big Apple

December 22, 2020 | Bethany Baratta

As emergency services crews in New York City respond to residents in distress due to COVID-19, they rely on biodiesel to get them to residents’ homes and medical centers for care.

Biodiesel isn’t only used for fuel, it’s used to heat homes and schools. Soybean oil also has a footprint in some tires that make their way around the Big Apple.

Iowa soybean farmers got a glimpse of New York’s usage and reliance on soybean oil in biodiesel during the National Biodiesel Board’s (NBB) virtual biodiesel tour of New York City held recently.

Biodiesel demand heating up

Blending biodiesel with home heating oil has helped secure needed demand for soybean oil while helping the home heating oil industry in the Northeast regain market share once overpowered by natural gas.

The idea sprung during conversations between Paul Nazzaro, a petroleum liaison for the National Biodiesel Board and other biodiesel proponents in the early 2000s.

They wanted to put biodiesel to the test in a big way.

“If biodiesel is as good as everyone says it is, why can’t we take some off road and put it into homes for heat and hot showers?,” Nazzaro wondered.

He reflected on the beginnings of Bioheat® Fuel usage (a blend of biodiesel and ultra-low-sulfur heating oil) and its breakthrough in the Northeast during the virtual tour.

Bioheat® Fuel usage is growing as states adopt mandates supporting net-zero carbon emission goals. Residents and business owners appreciate Bioheat Fuel because it can be used in existing heating oil systems.  It’s available in a variety of blends: 2% to 5% (Bioheat), 6% to 20% (Bioheat Plus™), and 21% and higher (Bioheat SuperPlus™). All of the blends increase the demand for soybean oil.

In New York, which uses approximately 1 billion gallons of heating oil every winter, switching all heating oil to B50 Bioheat Super Plus would demand about 500 million gallons of biodiesel.

The largest Bioheat user in New York is the Department of Education, says Keith Kerman, NYC Chief Fleet Officer. Schools are pushing to get to higher biodiesel blends, even B100, but there are technical and regulatory points to consider first.

“It’s the first time  in city government where someone else is pushing me on biodiesel, usually I’m the one pushing,” Kerman said, voicing his staunch support for biodiesel as the city looks to achieve its carbon reduction goals.

New York City has seen tremendous growth in the use of biofuels since 2012, Kerman noted. Citywide, the city uses 93% biofuels in its fleet, a growth in biofuels usage of nearly 30% in 8 years.

The demand for biodiesel and bioheat is big for the soybean industry, says Dave Walton, ISA District 6 director from Wilton.

“Bioheat wasn’t even a thing back in the early 2000s, but with support through NBB and the soybean industry, that market’s grown tremendously,” Walton said. “That’s all investment by U.S. soybean farmers to help develop that market.”

Soy treads

In the last two years, NYC Fleet has implemented a project to test the effectiveness, longevity, and performance of tires made substantially of soybean oil, an extension of its 15 years of experience with soybean-based biofuel. Per the supplier Goodyear, these weather-ready tires reduce the use of fossil fuel by 60% and offer the promise of increased life and road performance.  

To get a full sense of the effectiveness of these new tires, fleet will be assessing the fuel efficiency of the vehicles using these tires, as well as the useful life of the tires, and comparing them to traditional tires.

Moving forward

As states and large companies like Amazon announce their carbon reduction goals, biodiesel and thereby soybean oil have large growth opportunities.

Kerman says the biodiesel and electric vehicle sectors shouldn’t be viewed as competitors, but rather partners in helping states and companies achieve those goals.

“You are all on one side,” Kerman said. “Both are working in tandem to get us out fossil fuels, get us into energy independence and a cleaner environment.”

He questions whether the soybean industry can provide enough feedstock to meet the growth demand for biodiesel. ISA District 3 Director Suzanne Shirbroun of Farmersburg says it’s a challenge farmers are ready to face.

“Don’t tell an Iowa soybean farmer they can’t produce enough, because it will happen,” she said. “While electrification may be the headline, the reality is that biodiesel will still be the heavy-hitter.”

On average, biodiesel adds about $1 to every bushel of soybeans grown in Iowa and the United States. As the tour showed, biodiesel is a win-win for farmers and customers.

The Northeast embracing blends of biodiesel in Bioheat and fuel is a positive thing as it creates more demand and buyers for soybean oil. Processing soybeans for the soybean oil to create biodiesel also means creating soybean meal. Therefore, higher demand for soybean oil creates lower prices for soybean meal. That’s a win for cattle feeders like Walton.

“Our soybean oil is being demanded because it leads to lower carbon scores in liquid fuels,” Walton said. “Low carbon fuels are money in the bank for me as a livestock producer.”