A True Masterpiece: Feedstock Diversity and Biodiesel's Carbon Story
Although neither of us could be considered an expert judge of art, the mosaic of biodiesel feedstocks could be considered one of the more colorful pieces of artwork, if not a masterpiece, within the biofuels arena. This diversity has been a strength as biodiesel producers utilize an extensive pallet of feedstocks. These include recycled cooking oil, vegetable oils such as soybean and canola oil, animal fats, and other byproducts such as distillers corn oil (DCO).
The benefits of this diversity are far from abstract. When a significant portion of the U.S. experienced dry growing conditions in 2012, the diversity and abundance of available feedstocks for biodiesel production helped alleviate supply concerns. Also, the use of DCO has added to the profitability of ethanol production. Increased domestic use of animal fats and used cooking oil in 2013 has helped offset reduced exports for the rendering industry. All together, this diverse feedstock supply enabled the biodiesel and renewable diesel industries to grow to 1.8 billion gallons in 2013.
In this picture, an impressive example of growth is that of DCO. An inedible byproduct of ethanol production, DCO flourished as a result of thriving ethanol processing and the economic incentive to extract the oil for biodiesel manufacturing. We saw 62 percent growth in this product for biodiesel in 2013, and 105 percent growth in 2012. This equates to more than 250 million gallons of biodiesel since 2011.
DCO shows that innovation will find economic solutions when public policy values the environmental and social benefits of renewable fuels. But sometimes lost in the discussion is how improvements in technology and biodiesel’s diversity have made biodiesel a very cost-effective technology in reducing carbon from the transportation sector and providing other environmental and social benefits. In 2013, U.S. consumption of biomass-based diesel resulted in the elimination of approximately 17.3 million metric tons of CO2—equivalent to the annual emissions from 3.6 million cars. Since 2011, biodiesel production costs have declined by 20 percent. At the same time, the biodiesel industry has significantly increased its use of low-carbon feedstocks derived from waste grease, animal fats, DCO and other ancillary agricultural products, which currently account for almost half of combined U.S. biodiesel and renewable diesel production. It’s noteworthy that all of the feedstocks used to satisfy the renewable fuel standard (RFS) are decreasing in carbon intensity as the fossil fuels they displace are increasing in carbon intensity. Based on published life-cycle analysis and an average of 2013 feedstocks, the aggregate biodiesel industry currently reduces CO2 emissions by approximately 81 percent relative to average petroleum diesel, on an energy-equivalent basis.
Based on biodiesel’s feedstocks and respective carbon life-cycle estimates, today’s biodiesel eliminates CO2 emissions from petroleum-based diesel at a cost of $71 to $91 per metric ton. While environmental groups often cite that the social cost of carbon is indeed much higher, some government agencies accept this range to represent the value to society in terms of environmental and human health damages that will be incurred if we continue to use fossil fuels, or that can be saved if we reduce fossil carbon emissions. Current trends indicate that the cost of carbon reduction using biodiesel can be even lower in 2014.
Possibly the best part of the biodiesel landscape is that the RFS and other market factors will continue to drive innovation. Research investment will yield new technologies to contribute to low-carbon feedstock supplies such as camelina, field pennycress, brown greases, and let’s not forget the amazing leaps that can be made with existing feedstocks. Our industry’s feedstock masterpiece is never finished. Unlike a great work of art, the biodiesel industry’s masterpiece will continue to evolve, with its beauty found in its diverse pallet.