Climate change will continue to be the defining issue humanity must confront over the next several generations. Driven almost entirely by the unfettered combustion of fossil fuels, principally petroleum, coal, and natural gas, humanity is now at a critical juncture if we hope to prevent the most debilitating effects. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report calculates that to have a 66% chance of achieving the 1.5 C degree target, individuals must stop introducing new carbon in the atmosphere by 2035. Delaying until 2045 leaves us with only a 50% chance, a flip of a coin.
What does reducing emissions from fossil fuels at that rapid of a scale look like? It means reducing 0.1 exajoules (EJ) of fossil energy every day until 2035. What is 0.1 EJ? It looks like building 3,000 2.5 MW wind turbines, 2 nuclear power plants, or reducing the consumption of 163,500,000 barrels of oil a day. Two things should become clear when you start to grasp the scale of the problem. First, this is not a challenge that can be solved through individual action. Second, a problem of this scale requires an immediate, all the above sustainable energy strategy.
Today, technologies like wind and solar are making tremendous strides at reducing emissions from electricity, but not enough is being done to address transportation emissions. Transportation is now the largest emitter in the United States, comprising over 28% of the total emissions in 2018. While policy directives like California’s recent Executive Order banning the future sale of light-duty vehicles with internal combustion engines will inevitably put more electric vehicles on the road, few alternative powertrains exist for the heavy-duty sector that are deployable at scale in the timeframe scientist say is needed. Today, biomass-based diesel is the primary solution for those who want to displace diesel fuel, reduce emissions, and contribute to cleaner air without turning over their entire fleet. Growing from 20 million gallons of production in 2003 to over 2.8 billion gallons today, this industry has continued to show that it can rise to meet the long-term challenges that confront us.
It’s undoubtedly true that certain sectors of the economy that rely on diesel will be electrified, but it is just as true that there are certain sectors of the economy that lack immediate, near-term, or even mid-term electrification or zero-emission solutions. In 2016 the Energy Information Agency reported that the total on-road diesel market for the United States was approximately 49 billion gallons. Of that total, freight trucks comprised approximately 37 billion gallons or 76%. It is projected that fuel demand for this sector will continue to rise through 2050. While flashy startup companies and the mainstream press promise future, silver bullet solutions that will revolutionize these heavy-duty sectors, betting the farm on these solutions puts the energy transition at risk.
One must only look to Nikola, the startup hydrogen truck manufacturer whose market capitalization over the summer of 2020 rocketed to over $34 billion, surpassing Ford ($30 billion) without ever producing a single vehicle. Unfortunately, this valuation would not last as inquisitive analysts quickly realized the company’s projections were based on unrealistic leaps in fuel cell and hydrogen technology as well as electricity prices far below today’s costs. Fortunately, for proven industries like biodiesel and renewable diesel, the quick fizzle of Nikola didn’t allow time for policymakers time to fixate on this technology unicorn. It could have been devastating to the energy transition if regulations were written that disadvantages commercial technologies in the hopes of prematurely favoring non-commercial ones.
Even California’s 2020 Mobile Source Strategy presentation stated they expect 1.5 billion gallons of diesel to still be used in the state in 2045. Beyond terrestrial transport, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) also recognize that liquid biofuels will play a critical role in their long-term decarbonization efforts.
Today, biodiesel and renewable diesel are reducing emissions and air pollution in all these sectors, going forward they will become an even more critical component to sustainable growth. Much like saving early for retirement accrues outsized benefits, reducing carbon dioxide emission earlier produces a similar compounding effect on our carbon budget. Policymakers, environmentalists, and consumers need to understand that the energy transition is not a zero-sum game between electricity and other forms of sustainable energy, it is a zero-sum game between all forms of sustainable energy and fossil fuels.
Today, tomorrow, and long into the future, biodiesel and renewable diesel will continue to do its part in reducing emissions while ensuring critical goods and services continue to move. Now consumers, policymakers, and environmentalists need to look at biodiesel, a better, cleaner alternative here today.