Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that biodiesel and renewable diesel created emissions at a rate 1/3rd of electricity. This is incorrect. The correct metric is that biodiesel and renewable diesel are responsible for 3x more metric ton credits from greenhouse gas reduction than electricity is, based on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program. This is most likely attributable to higher adoption rates because of how much easier it is to switch to alternative diesel fuels than to electricity. Thanks to our readership for keeping us accurate!
The electric truck race just became a lot more interesting, as some experts say it is obsolete.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) performed a study on the greenhouse gas emissions of standard diesel alternatives to see which ones had the lowest global warming potential. It turns out that renewable diesel and biodiesel are responsible for 3 times the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to electric vehicles, signaling that the future may just be combustion after all.
What Does “Electric” Mean?
Electricity, as we use it, does not come from lightning bolts captured with metal rods. When someone plugs something in, the electrical energy comes from power plants of different types. The combination mix of sources that go into making the electricity depends on geographical location, but as an average, it is made of:
- 60% non-renewables (coal, petroleum, natural gas, etc.)
- 20% nuclear
- 20% non-nuclear renewables (solar, water, wind, etc.)
While this mix is better for the environment than standard diesel or gasoline, it is a far cry from CARB’s goal of making California a global leader in the green energy movement. The problem is further compounded when considering the energy needed to make a new electric truck, including the lithium-ion batteries, before it drives even a foot.
The Biodiesel Solution (Pun Intended)
The best fuel source for trucking may have been under the industry’s nose the entire time. Rudolf Diesel, who invented the contraption and named it after himself, wrote at length about the various fuel sources that the diesel engine could use:
“But it is not generally known that it is possible to use animal and vegetable oils direct in Diesel motors. In 1900 a small Diesel engine was exhibited at the Paris exhibition by the Otto Company which, on the suggestion of the French Government, was run on Arachide [peanut] oil, and operated so well that very few people were aware of the fact. The motor was built for ordinary oils, and without any modification was run on vegetable oil. I have recently repeated these experiments on a large scale with full success and entire confirmation of the results formerly obtained…
Similar experiments have also been made in St. Petersburg with castor oil with equal success. Even animal oils, such as fish oil, have been tried with perfect success.
If at present the applicability of vegetable and animal oil to Diesel motors seems insignificant, it may develop in the course of time to reach an importance equal to that of natural liquid fuels and tar oil. Twelve years ago we were no more advanced with the tar oils than to-day is the case with vegetable oils; and how important have they now become!
We cannot predict the role which these oils will have to play in the colonies in days to come. However, they give certainty that motive power can be produced by agricultural transformation of the heat of the sun, even when our total natural store of solid and liquid fuel will be exhausted.”
Rudolf Diesel was a visionary even further ahead of his time than originally thought! While his initial plans for his engine were for nonrenewable fuel sources, he very much saw the potential of running the engines on different forms of oils from animals and vegetation. The logic makes sense when thought about: fossil fuels such as standard diesel and gasoline ultimately come from the remains of plants and animals that existed many millions of years ago. Using biodiesel from soybean or other oils can cut out the middleman and allow trucks to travel using more recent organic matter.
The fact that biodiesel has been shown to work for over a century helps to explain the quicker adoption rate than electric trucks, which have not fully proven themselves to fleets just yet.
The main obstacle keeping biodiesel from becoming the trucker’s choice is that diesel engines have been built with petroleum diesel in mind for more than 100 years, and as such using biodiesel fuel blends outside of manufacture specifications may void warranties. Still, retrofitting currently existing diesel engines to be more receptive to high-percentage biodiesel blends (including B100, 100%) may prove to be less costly and environmentally damaging than building new electric big rigs.
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.
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