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Renewable diesel: Environmental and economic sustainability meet head-on

Up to 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions possible

(Photo: Neste)

A clear, odorless drop-in fuel has the potential to provide fleets with greenhouse gas emissions savings without having to fork out extra funds for new vehicles with high upfront costs.

Renewable diesel is produced using sustainable and renewable raw materials, including used cooking oil, technical corn oil and fish fat. These waste products that are at the end of their first useful life can be processed into a liquid fuel that provides more consistency than biodiesel, Matt Leuck, technical manager for renewable road transportation at Neste, told FreightWaves.

“We’re giving products a second life,” Leuck said. “Our lifetime carbon footprint is down up to 75% compared to fossil diesel,” he added.

Leuck said renewable diesel also emits 30% fewer unburned hydrocarbons — pollutants with the potential to harm human health.

Renewable diesel “meets the same specifications as what’s required for fossil diesel,” Leuck said, so there’s no downside when it comes to performance.

Similar price at the pump

Although this drop-in fuel has many benefits, “it does cost more to make renewable diesel,” Leuck said. “Our feedstocks could be multiples of fossil feedstocks” in terms of price. 

But that’s why the majority of renewable diesel is being produced and sold in states with low-carbon fuel standards (LCFS) such as California and Oregon. States with policies such as LCFS make it cost competitive with conventional diesel for customers.

Watch: Fuel Buyers Summit: Unlocking the mysteries of low carbon fuel standard

“It costs us about the same,” Jeremy Mairs, owner and president at Cox Petroleum Transport, told FreightWaves. Cox has been using renewable diesel supplied by Neste since 2019.

About 35 trucks, or 20% of the Cox fleet, runs on renewable diesel, largely operating out of the Bakersfield, California, facility. The company is building a renewable diesel tank at its Colton, California, facility, which Mairs said should be able to fuel an additional 20 to 35 trucks.

And unlike sustainable alternatives such as electric vehicles or fuel cell electric vehicles, Cox won’t have to invest in new trucks to use this fuel. Once the fuel tank is installed, trucks already in the fleet can start filling up with renewable diesel.

In addition to facing no higher upfront costs for renewable diesel, Cox reported lower maintenance costs.

Lower maintenance costs

Cox’s Colton and Bakersfield facilities support a similar number of trucks. The difference is Colton uses conventional diesel while Bakersfield trucks run on renewable diesel. 

Mairs said maintenance costs related to exhaust issues have dropped significantly at the Bakersfield facility. 

The Colton facility spends an average of $30,000 on exhaust-related maintenance issues annually, while the Bakersfield facility averages about $1,000 to $2,000 for the same maintenance issues, he said.

“Our downtime in the middle of deliveries went way down, efficiency picked up,” Mairs said when talking about how the switch to renewable diesel has impacted operations.

Another reason Mairs said the company is using renewable diesel is because it has the same hauling power as conventional diesel and doesn’t compromise on range. He said his drivers don’t have to worry about running out of renewable diesel on deliveries because they can fill up with conventional diesel at any gas station if they need to.

Renewable diesel meets all the requirements of conventional diesel. “The only difference is you’re going to notice it’s going to burn cleaner, you’re going to have less emissions, you’re going to have less maintenance and downtime,” Leuck said.

Leuck said the company plans to expand as federal or state policy makes it economically viable for fleets. “As those pieces of legislation are passed, that’s where Neste is going to be,” he said.

Read: CN expands foray into sustainability through electric locomotives, renewable diesel

Potential for renewable diesel

Though they are far from being fully utilized, there is a limited supply of feedstocks such as fats, oils and greases from which to produce renewable diesel in the U.S. 

Given the limited supply of feedstocks, how much could production for renewable diesel expand to reduce emissions in freight and transportation?

A lot, Leuck said. He said Neste is “not technology limited,” so it’s not focused on the limited feedstocks. The company is doing research to produce renewable diesel using different feedstocks such as municipal solid waste, algae or even e-fuels in the future.

“There’s a long runway of technology ahead of us, so we’re not limited to just what you see in the market right now,” said Leuck. 

“Renewable diesel is a today solution,” he said, emphasizing that fleets can switch to this fuel today and see immediate cost and emissions benefits without waiting for technology, infrastructure and economies of scale for other solutions to catch up.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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F3: Future of Freight Festival


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.