The Long Haul

Widespread acceptance of biodiesel by the trucking industry would certainly grease the wheels of the biofuels industry. Biodiesel advocates are gaining ground with many truck drivers and trucking companies, but the campaign has just begun.
By Holly Jessen | January 10, 2007
After fueling up with a couple tanks of B20, Keith Bevers, an owner/operator truck driver, has noticed something positive. "You do seem to get better mileage because it goes in and cleans out the tanks and the motor," he tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Bevers, who drives for Overbye Transport Inc., based in Lakeville, Minn., still has some reservations, however. The renewable fuel really hasn't been completely proven yet-either as a positive or a negative for diesel engines, he says. As a result, Bevers buys biodiesel blends for his truck when it's available but only when the price is the same or lower than regular diesel fuel. "I'm still kind of on the fence," he says. "It's a 50-50 thing."

On the other hand, Carl Cornelius, part owner of Carl's Corner Truck Stop, says he's heard few, if any, negative comments about biodiesel from truck drivers. The benefits of biodiesel include everything from increased gas mileage, cleaner exhaust fumes and a cooler-running engine. He's even been told that adding biodiesel cleans out the algae growing in a truck's fuel tank. "Actually, it's entertaining listening to people [talk about the benefits of biodiesel]," he says.

A lot of customers at the truck stop in Carl's Corner, Texas, are pleased with how smoothly their trucks run on biodiesel. Truckers are attuned to every vibration and sound coming from their trucks, he says. Many say their vehicles "run like a dream" after adding biodiesel. "We've had them come in here with their trucks shaking," Cornelius says. "They put biodiesel in, and it's just purring."

Though Cornelius is a fan of biodiesel use, he did say today's biodiesel industry is in need of uniformity and consistency. He advocates for BQ-9000, a voluntary quality assurance program. "[Biodiesel is] a relatively brand new type of adventure," Cornelius says.

Official Stance
Overall, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) is supportive of the biodiesel industry, says Rich Moskowitz, regulatory affairs counsel for the ATA. The organization regards it as a reasonable means to extend the fuel supply.

In October 2005, the ATA endorsed B5. This past summer, the Agricultural and Food Transport division of ATA formed a renewable fuels task force.

In the next breath, Moskowitz stresses that the association is "adamantly opposed" to blends above the 5 percent threshold. "When you start getting above 5 percent, there are some operational challenges for the over-the-road-trucking industry," he says.

Overall, ATA views quality as the No. 1 issue facing the biodiesel industry. "We are aware of significant quality issues throughout the industry," he tells Biodiesel Magazine. It's the biggest barrier to the trucking industry's total support. The industry can't continue to stand behind biodiesel if the quality problems with the renewable fuel aren't faced and corrected. "The industry needs to get it right because we can't afford to have trucks breaking down on the side of the road," Moskowitz says.

Because biodiesel acts as a solvent, it can clog fuel filters. That tends to be a big problem when a truck is stranded several hundred miles away from its base of operations. Cold weather performance is another issue, and the higher the biodiesel blend, the greater the probability of the fuel gelling.

Price is another issue that could hamper or erode the trucking industry's acceptance of biodiesel. Fuel is the second-largest expense for most trucking companies, making up to 20 percent to 25 percent of a company's total budget. When the price of biodiesel is higher than conventional diesel, utilizing it can have a big impact on the bottom line. "A difference of even a penny for a gallon is very significant for the industry," Moskowitz says.

The lower energy value of biodiesel is also a factor. Conventional biodiesel has about a 9 percent energy penalty, Moskowitz says. While that difference wouldn't be readily apparent at lower blends like B2, the impact would be more noticeable for big companies running a lot of trucks. "It certainly would be measurable across a large fleet," he says.

Getting the Facts
G&P Trucking Company, which has 12 locations in six states and about 560 company trucks and owner/operators, isn't ready to use biodiesel in its trucks, says Senior Vice President Richard Strobel. He's heard some things that aren't flattering about the alternative fuel.

Before Strobel would be willing to accept biodiesel, he'd like to see more studies that would determine if the fuel is detrimental to the operation of the vehicle, he says. Those studies need to be conducted by people within the trucking industry, not the fuel industry.

To convince Strobel and other skeptics, a trucking company in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is conducting its own study. Decker Truck Line Inc. is working with a variety of partners, including the National Biodiesel Board and the Iowa Soybean Association, to conduct a real-world, over-the-road study, says Dale Decker, industry and government relations director for the company.

During the next two years and 2 million miles, the study will look at the effects of using B20 versus ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). Currently, six trucks are part of the study, with three using B20 and three using conventional ULSD. The trucks are all outfitted the same, and have comparable routes and loads, Decker says.

The company, which has 750 trucks in its fleet, may expand the study to include more trucks. The study's objective is to get information out to the trucking industry so that individual drivers and companies can make informed decisions, Decker says. Though the study isn't completed yet, he believes the positive effects of using biodiesel blends will outweigh the negatives. 'We haven't had any problems so far, and I wouldn't expect any problems," he says.

With ULSD as the new reality for diesel fuel, Decker Truck Line is excited about the added lubricity that the biofuel offers. ULSD is basically stripped of all lubricant because it has only 15 parts per million of sulfur. "Biodiesel adds more lubricant back than you're actually using with ULSD, so actually we feel that it is better for the engine," Decker says.

However, the availability of the biofuel must improve before it can really take off. Biodiesel blends need to be readily available at major truck stops across the country, such as Pilot Travel Centers, Flying J travel plazas and Road Ranger travel centers. We can't find it at many truck stops along the road, he says.

Decker also addressed the quality issue, which he agreed is the key to the success of the industry. "When you get a bad batch of biodiesel, you don't wonder 'Oh, who made that?'" he says. "You just remember 'I had a bad batch of biodiesel.'"

Still, Decker is convinced that there's demand for and interest in biodiesel. For example, the company has diesel pumps on-site, which are utilized by the owner/operators who work for them. There's been a lot of interest in getting the company to add a B20 pump. "I get calls every day," he says.

Holly Jessen is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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