Warming Up to Bioheat

With winter's grip nearing, the nation is looking for ways to overcome what could be its highest heating costs ever. Biodiesel-blended heating oil-bioheat-is offering a cleaner, more exciting alternative.
By Dave Nilles | November 01, 2005
Paul Nazzaro recently found himself sitting in a client's office, leafing through a copy of Oil & Energy Magazine, a publication of the New England Fuel Institute. By Nazzaro's count, the issue had no less than six articles discussing biodiesel and biodiesel-blended heating oil-more commonly known as bioheat. For someone that's been working to promote and advance bioheat for nearly half a decade, the assortment of stories was a pleasing indicator of the renewable fuel's growing acceptance and escalating potential.

And for Nazzaro, president of Advanced Fuel Solutions Inc. and the National Biodiesel Board's (NBB) petroleum advisor, bioheat's budding popularity means that his longtime push to get the American-made product into heating oil supplies of the Northeastern United States has not been in vain. Bioheat is now widely viewed as a viable heating fuel additive or substitute-and a solution to the region's ailing oilheat industry.

Jack Sullivan is the executive vice president of the New England Fuel Institute (NEFI), an oilheat trade association serving more than 1,000 members. He explained that the heating oil market, although stabilizing in recent years, has been steadily losing market share-mainly to natural gas. He attributes the stabilization, in part, to the marketing and research conducted by the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA), which was recently reauthorized through the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Sullivan serves on NORA's executive board.

The main reasons heating oil has lost ground to natural gas is the perception that the latter is cleaner and more convenient to use, according to World Energy President Gene Gebolys. Natural gas has also been perceived as cheaper. With natural gas prices exceeding $14 per MMBtu, however, that definitely isn't the case anymore. "The cost of traditional energy for home heating oil and boiler operations is getting so expensive during the winter season, it's driving a push for looking for alternatives," Gebolys said. "Biodiesel is not a dramatic price savings, but we're within striking distance. It's a good hedge against spikes to the traditional fuel sector."

Inconvenience is no longer an issue either, as leading heating oil distributors have made it as easy to use heating oil as it is to use natural gas, according to Gebolys.

That leaves cleanliness. And bioheat has that issue covered.

Test results reveal surprising trait
C.R. Krishna is the lead biodiesel researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He's been studying biodiesel and bioheat for the past four years. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has funded much of his research, as has the NBB. Brookhaven is a multi-program national laboratory operated by Brookhaven Science Associates for the U.S. DOE.

Krishna's research revealed some positive characteristics of bioheat. Although smell, particulate and sulfur oxide reductions weren't completely unexpected, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) were.

"We were surprised to find a reduction in NOx," Krishna said. He added that the amount of NOx reduction was dependent on the burner system being used. Krishna said more work is needed to determine exactly why NOx was reduced in heating oil and not in on-road diesel fuel. "The intricacies of combustion in each process are different," Krishna said. "Maybe that is the reason, but that does not explain it."

Another study, this one conducted by the Massachusetts Oilheat Council and NORA, found similar results when testing a blend of 20 percent soy-based biodiesel in 80 percent low-sulfur highway diesel fuel in residential oil-burning equipment. A preliminary analysis indicated that the environmental cost of the biodiesel blend was less than that of natural gas when gas leakage through distribution was taken into account. The study found sulfur oxide emissions were reduced by 83 percent, and NOx was reduced by approximately 20 percent.

The studies undertaken at Brookhaven National Laboratory, NREL and similar labs have helped sooth the concerns of burner manufacturers. Although none of the major home heating oil burner manufacturers contacted for this story returned calls, it is generally understood that they are aware and supportive of the research.

Which blend is best?
With tests of B20 blends showing such promise, it begs the question: What is the ideal bioheat blend for the typical consumer's oil burner and the heating oil industry?

Nazzaro said there are three compelling reasons to stick with a 5 percent biodiesel blend in heating oil. The first is that it most closely fits the current supply and demand profile for biodiesel and heating oil. Looking at current and projected production, the biodiesel industry could reach a production capacity of approximately 500 MMgy within 36 months, according to Nazzaro. A 6.7 billion-gallon-per-year heating oil market alone would swallow nearly 70 percent of that potential capacity, even at just a 5 percent inclusion rate.

The second issue is the consumer and fuel dealer cost threshold. Studies, including one conducted by Maine-based Frontier Energy through funds provided by the Maine Technology Institute, have shown that an extra 4 to 5 cents per gallon is about all a consumer or fuel dealer is willing to pay for renewable blends.

Finally, Nazzaro said a 5 percent blend reduces the chance of any technical problems caused by the fuel.

Krishna said that blend levels ranging from B20 to B30 have worked well in laboratory tests. Brookhaven has studied blends up to B100. In fact, they are working on creating the ideal burner system for B100. "If you want to switch fuels seamlessly, B20 or B30 seems to be the limit where you don't have to worry much about pump and seal degradation," Krishna said. However, Krishna admits that there has not been much long-term study of the effects of bioheat on burner equipment. Current evidence is mostly anecdotal.

Krishna believes that most heating oil distributors are sticking with low-level blends principally because of the fuel's relative newness.
Nazzaro said NORA is supportive of 5 percent blends. "It's not just marketing and consumer protection-the stuff works," he said.
But despite Nazzaro's campaign for widespread use of 5 percent blends, some fuel dealers are selling a variety of blends. Frontier Energy, which has been selling bioheat for four winters, sells two blends of bioheat-B5 and B20. Frontier Energy President Brad Taylor said the product is aimed at two types of audiences. The first, which he termed "Greens," is the environmentally sensitive group willing to pay a higher price for a premium blend in order to help the environment. The second group, which Taylor called the "Red, White and Blues," likes buying an American-made fuel to offset foreign oil imports, but doesn't typically like to pay the higher costs associated with higher blends.
World Energy recently unveiled its plan to offer a 10 percent soybean-based biodiesel blended with heating oil. It is available in New England at the Bursaw Gas & Oil terminal in Acton, Mass.

Massachusetts-based Worley and Obetz has been selling a 3 percent biodiesel-blended heating oil since October 2004, according to Len Zvorsky, the company's compliance manager. The company services approximately 8,000 homes. Zvorsky said they are selling bioheat at a price competitive with regular heating oil. He said the decision to provide B3 was made primarily due to the biodiesel supply at the time.

The push for long-term widespread use
Sullivan saw Nazzaro speak at a recent fuel oil conference in New Hampshire. "After seeing him speak and talking with peers, there is some excitement in this product," Sullivan said. "It has the qualities that we need and look for in heating oil."

Sullivan expects many factors will affect this year's heating oil market. He feels conservation levels could reach as high as 10 percent. He added that heating oil inventories are at the high end of the five-year average. "And if there is a boat that can sail product [anywhere in the world], they are coming here," Sullivan said. Therefore heating oil prices might not be as high as the current $2 seen on the futures market.
However, Gebolys said the industry would still likely use something in the order of 4 million gallons of biodiesel this year to blend with heating oil.

"Demand is going up," Taylor said. "The best thing that happened as far as public awareness is seeing what happened with the volatility of the petroleum market."

Another factor that could benefit bioheat is the possible reduction of heating oil's sulfur content, which is currently 2,000 parts per million (ppm). Nazzaro said NORA's testing was completed anticipating a 500 ppm range.
Gebolys points out that bioheat could provide a balance to the seasonal biodiesel demand markets, especially those centered in the Midwest, where demand tends to be centered on the planting and harvest seasons. "It's not just a matter of customers, but can you keep the plants running evenly all year, around the clock?" Gebolys said.

Nazzaro said the future of bioheat relies not on its price, but in the product itself. If oil prices should drop, the bioheat market needs to be built on a quality product.

NORA has formulated a task force of industry leaders to study bioheat in the field. Nazzaro said the group has met twice thus far. They are working together to relieve distribution pressure points and assess areas of concern impeding the market.
"We think it could be huge," Taylor said. "Eventually you're going to see bioheat blended at the terminal. I think every bit of heating oil in New England is going to have some percentage of bioheat. I think that's where we have to go as a country."

Dave Nilles is associate editor of Biodiesel Magazine. Reach him by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
Array ( [REDIRECT_REDIRECT_HTTPS] => on [REDIRECT_REDIRECT_SSL_TLS_SNI] => biodieselmagazine.com [REDIRECT_REDIRECT_STATUS] => 200 [REDIRECT_HTTPS] => on [REDIRECT_SSL_TLS_SNI] => biodieselmagazine.com [REDIRECT_STATUS] => 200 [HTTPS] => on [SSL_TLS_SNI] => biodieselmagazine.com [HTTP_HOST] => biodieselmagazine.com [HTTP_CONNECTION] => Keep-Alive [HTTP_ACCEPT_ENCODING] => gzip [HTTP_X_FORWARDED_FOR] => [HTTP_CF_RAY] => 77657194ff5c81bd-IAD [HTTP_X_FORWARDED_PROTO] => https [HTTP_CF_VISITOR] => {"scheme":"https"} [HTTP_USER_AGENT] => CCBot/2.0 (https://commoncrawl.org/faq/) [HTTP_ACCEPT] => text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8 [HTTP_ACCEPT_LANGUAGE] => en-US,en;q=0.5 [HTTP_CF_CONNECTING_IP] => [HTTP_CF_IPCOUNTRY] => US [HTTP_CDN_LOOP] => cloudflare [PATH] => /sbin:/usr/sbin:/bin:/usr/bin [SERVER_SIGNATURE] =>
Apache/2.2.15 (CentOS) Server at biodieselmagazine.com Port 443
[SERVER_SOFTWARE] => Apache/2.2.15 (CentOS) [SERVER_NAME] => biodieselmagazine.com [SERVER_ADDR] => [SERVER_PORT] => 443 [REMOTE_ADDR] => [DOCUMENT_ROOT] => /datadrive/websites/biodieselmagazine.com/ [SERVER_ADMIN] => [email protected] [SCRIPT_FILENAME] => /datadrive/websites/biodieselmagazine.com/app/webroot/index.php [REMOTE_PORT] => 36372 [REDIRECT_QUERY_STRING] => url=articles/287/warming-up-to-bioheat [REDIRECT_URL] => /app/webroot/articles/287/warming-up-to-bioheat [GATEWAY_INTERFACE] => CGI/1.1 [SERVER_PROTOCOL] => HTTP/1.1 [REQUEST_METHOD] => GET [QUERY_STRING] => url=articles/287/warming-up-to-bioheat [REQUEST_URI] => /articles/287/warming-up-to-bioheat [SCRIPT_NAME] => /app/webroot/index.php [PHP_SELF] => /app/webroot/index.php [REQUEST_TIME_FLOAT] => 1670501906.884 [REQUEST_TIME] => 1670501906 )