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Electric Vehicles, Renewable Fuels Can Coexist in a Clean Energy Future

The future of alternative energy will not be based on a single solution. Options are much more likely to include “all of the above” answers, using both electricity and proven alternatives such as biodiesel.

Across the United States, more than 70 percent of all goods used in our daily lives — from food to manufactured products — are transported to our stores and homes by trucks. As the nation’s demand for goods continues to reach record levels, cities are facing an increase in congestion, noise and air pollution. 

Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are the second-largest contributor to US transportation emissions. Interest is high in zero-emission electric vehicles to transform the movement of goods. While Tesla and other manufacturers have made inroads in the US passenger vehicle market, electric trucks are still in their infancy. Wood Mackenzie, a global research and consulting firm, estimates there were about 2,000 electric trucks on US roads at the end of last year.

As organizations look to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in their transportation operations, biodiesel offers environmental benefits today.

“Biodiesel continues to have a significant niche in the fuels market because it increases energy security, improves air quality and the environment, and provides safety benefits,” says Linda Bluestein, co-director of Clean Cities in the US Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office. The office seeks to form partnerships between government, private and nonprofit organizations to advance alternative fuels and petroleum-displacement methods.

“Fuel diversity is extremely important for energy security, resiliency, innovation and affordability,” she added. And achieving a diverse fuel supply depends on exploring new options — such as electricity, compressed natural gas and hydrogen — without abandoning proven alternative fuel solutions available today, such as biodiesel.

The transition to a zero-emission future will be a paradigm shift — requiring greater collaboration among fleets, truck manufacturers, utilities and policymakers. The development of charging infrastructure also is a significant hurdle.

“Because of the buzz around electric vehicle technologies today, people often think they are going to come in and wipe the slate clean,” says Bailey Arnold, senior manager of clean air initiatives at the American Lung Association. “But we likely will have diesel-powered vehicles on the road well into the future, so we will need liquid fuels to power these vehicles. That’s why we need to embrace cleaner-burning liquid fuel solutions — like biodiesel — that are right here, right now.”

Biodiesel has already been down the path of investment and acceptance that electric vehicles have just begun.

In June 2000, biodiesel became the first and only alternative fuel to have successfully completed the Tier I and Tier II Health Effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The biodiesel industry invested more than $2 million and four years into the health-effects testing program, with the goal of setting biodiesel apart from other alternative fuels and increasing consumer confidence in biodiesel.

The quality has gotten better and better. Biodiesel blends must meet 23 minimum standards created by ASTM International designed to enhance the safety and quality of the fuel — petroleum diesel has to meet 14 standards. Biodiesel is higher in cetane for reduced smoke and is naturally sulfur-free, meeting limits of 15 parts per million or less.

A biodiesel federal income tax credit was first adopted in 2005 to encourage distribution. The tax credit has been extended several times, most recently in December through 2022.

Biodiesel has proven its value as an affordable alternative fuel option for fleets. It is a domestically produced, clean-burning and renewable substitute for petroleum diesel and can be used in diesel vehicles without engine modification or changes in fuel infrastructure.

Comparing vehicle fuel options

The future of alternative energy will not be based on a single solution. Options are much more likely to include “all of the above” answers, using both electricity and proven alternatives such as biodiesel.

“Biodiesel can continue to have a significant niche in the fuels market,” Bluestein said. “This will allow it to increase resiliency, lower certain emissions, and provide a fuel with great performance and emissions profiles for on- and off-road purposes.”

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