As the trucking industry considers the costs, challenges and social impacts of switching to alternative fuels to reduce its carbon footprint, the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) has released a report on the health and economic impacts of replacing ultra-low sulfur diesel with 100% biodiesel (B100).

Up to 45% of cancer risk could be reduced, and 203,000 asthma attacks annually could be avoided or lessened in the areas evaluated by switching to B100, according to the study, “Assessment of health benefits from using biodiesel as a transportation fuel,” conducted by Trinity Consultants.

The NBB chose eight cities to study because of their increased exposure to transportation-related air pollution. Seattle and Everett, Washington, Denver, and the California cities of Wilminton, Carson and West Long Beach, San Bernardino, South Fresno and West Oakland were evaluated using 70-year-exposure-period models.

In addition to impacts on the climate, experts and organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have linked transportation-related air pollution to negative health impacts, including increased risks of asthma, other respiratory illnesses and cancer. 

The NBB study said that biodiesel exhaust is expected to be 72% less carcinogenic than exhaust from conventional diesel.

“We have always known that biodiesel offers a better and cleaner alternative to petroleum diesel,” NBB CEO Donnell Rehagen said in a release. “This study quantifies the health benefits and shows that by using renewable fuels like biodiesel and renewable diesel, we are bringing positive change to people’s lives, the nation’s health and the economy.”

Carbon dioxide (CO2), particulate matter (PM), hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are some of the pollutants that diesel fuel emits. 

Emissions changes from conventional diesel to B100 (Photo: Alternative Fuels Data Center)

The AFDC graph above shows how various biodiesel blend levels have different impacts on the emissions of air pollutants. PM, CO and HC emissions are greatly reduced through use of B100. CO2 emissions are about 74% lower than those from conventional diesel, according to a life cycle analysis by Argonne National Laboratory. However, the AFDC graph shows NOx increased about 10% when using B100, indicating that there are at least some trade-offs. 

Economic benefits

Due to the reduction in air pollutant exposure, the health benefits of using B100 in the study were translated in terms of economic impacts.

About $1.69 billion could be saved annually in the Wilmington, Carson, West Long Beach area of California alone by preventing premature mortality, work loss days, minor restricted activity days due to acute respiratory symptoms and asthma attacks. The health benefits were valued using the EPA’s BenMAP program. 

That same annual savings due to better health was $253 million in Seattle, $252 million in Denver, $172 million in West Oakland, California, and $156 million in San Bernardino, California.

The valuation of health benefits for the eight locations totaled $2.712 billion.

Environmental potential despite B100 downsides

Beyond social and economic benefits, biodiesel is a viable drop-in fuel for diesel trucks on the road today.

“The time value of carbon is key, and this next decade is critical,” Jennifer Weaver, program manager of key contractors at the NBB, said in a webinar earlier this month.

Other alternative fuel technologies such as battery-electric and hydrogen have some work to do before they will be viable for long-haul trucking. Switching to biodiesel now can lower companies’ CO2 emissions without having to invest in a whole new fleet of specialized trucks, Weaver noted. Because it is made from recycled vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel also decreases the country’s reliance on foreign oil.

Truck drivers shouldn’t notice a difference in the horsepower and torque of biodiesel; however, fuel economy could drop 2%-8%, according to an EPA report. The report said another downside is that higher blends of biodiesel such as B100 can have operational issues in very low temperatures.

The cost of biodiesel depends on the blended amount. B20 is much more comparable to diesel in price than B100 because B20 contains less biodiesel.

Price comparison of conventional diesel, B20 and B100 (Photo: AFDC)

Though AFDC data shows that B100 costs more than diesel, Weaver said tax incentives applied at the blending level can make biodiesel the same or a lower price than conventional diesel.

Perspective is also important. For companies trying to greatly lower CO2 emissions, the benefits of transitioning to a drop-in fuel that is available now and requires no investment in new vehicles could greatly outweigh the costs.

“The immediacy of these potential health [and economic] benefits, especially for disadvantaged communities, is even more critical when one considers the years it will take for states to pursue deep electrification and other decarbonization strategies,” Rehagen said.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

Related Stories:

Biodiesel blending interest soars with tax break restored

LA businessman guilty in $1 billion biodiesel tax scam

Is Amazon getting into the renewable natural gas business?

Strict rules key to sustainable transportation, climate policy expert says