NBB Energy Use Study shows 30 percent efficiency improvement

By | September 18, 2009
Biodiesel remains one of the most efficient ways to deliver energy as a liquid fuel. Ongoing technology improvements also continue to improve the balance of energy-in to energy-out. The National Biodiesel Board recently completed the most comprehensive survey in the world of the actual energy used by commercial biodiesel production plants. The survey showed that energy used in biodiesel production has decreased by 30 percent compared to previous industry estimates.


Most biodiesel producers use a combination of electricity and natural gas. Some small producers use only electricity, and several producers reported using alternative sources of energy such as used motor oil or biodiesel. The survey concluded that a gallon of biodiesel contains more than 37 times the energy used to convert vegetable oil into usable fuel.

Based on survey results, the average energy used to produce a gallon of biodiesel from virgin vegetable oils is 3,184 Btus. Energy use among plants that use blends of virgin oil and recycled or reclaimed fats and oils varies, as does the composition of these feedstocks. Taking into account all of these variations, the overall industry average for all feedstocks and all production technologies is 4,192 Btus per gallon of biodiesel. For comparison, 3,184 Btus is about the same amount of energy required to power a 60-watt light bulb for just less than six hours.

These numbers represent total energy used at biodiesel production plants and were not reduced to account for coproduct generation. The energy used in biodiesel production is also much less than the energy used in a petroleum refinery. Even when we include all the life-cycle energy to produce and transport vegetable oil, biodiesel's energy balance is 4.5-to-1 and soon improving to exceed 5.5-to-1. Petroleum's energy balance, however, is 0.83-to-1 and growing worse due to crude oil becoming harder to get and harder to refine.

The year 2008 was a record one for U.S. biodiesel production, and the survey data returned by U.S. producers represents 37 percent of that record volume. The NBB study is the first and only survey of actual data ever representing such a substantial volume of biodiesel production. NBB has provided the information to oversight agencies including the U.S. EPA, USDA, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others to ensure the most current and accurate industry information is used as a basis for energy use and output comparisons.
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