In 2018, Oregon announced that it will use one-quarter of the state’s $18 million in Volkswagen (VW) settlement funds to retrofit or replace old diesel school buses with new, more energy-efficient buses. Since then, many states have followed suit, including Michigan, Arizona, and Nebraska. While this is great news for select school districts within these states, what if your district isn’t one of the lucky ones to receive funding?
The good news is that these districts do not have to wait for new money to reduce the emissions of their existing fleets. Biodiesel offers a simple solution to lower the risks of harmful emissions while decreasing costs and simplifying fueling.
Biodiesel works like petroleum diesel, except that it’s sourced and made from plant-based oils and recycled fats and greases instead of fossil fuels. It can be blended with — or fully replace — petroleum diesel for far less impact on the environment. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have submitted a complete emissions evaluation to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The results of this evaluation show that switching to a 20% biodiesel, 80% petroleum (80/20) blend reduces emissions of particulate matter: a known contributor to respiratory problems.
Today, about 440,000 school buses transport more than 25 million children across the U.S. to and from school and other activities every weekday. The vast majority of these school buses are powered by diesel engines, and many school districts have been switching to biodiesel blends to reap the health and environmental benefits of this alternative fuel.
So, what exactly are the benefits? Consider the following:
1. No need for fuel system modifications or a fleet overhaul. As previously mentioned, biodiesel works just like petroleum diesel and can be used in any traditional diesel equipment, including cars, trucks, farm equipment, boats, generators, and oil heating furnaces. No modifications or upgrades are necessary for existing fleets to take advantage of the emissions benefits of biodiesel. Biodiesel has a higher cetane rating than petroleum diesel, making it easier to start and turn over the engine, and better lubricity, resulting in less wear and a potentially longer engine life. It also causes less soot accumulation.
2. A positive health impact. Because it is made from oils and fats, biodiesel is naturally very low carbon and completely renewable. It biodegrades as fast as sugar, making it less destructive to the planet. It also burns significantly cleaner. This is important for us all, but particularly children riding school buses. Children are far more susceptible to poor air quality due to their developing lungs, higher respiratory rates, and deeper breathing. Biodiesel can lower particulate matter by 47%, according to the National Biodiesel Board, reducing smog, and making our air healthier to breathe.
3. A lower carbon footprint. School districts can play a big part in reducing their carbon footprint — and the associated financial expense — by using biodiesel that is locally sourced and manufactured. Biodiesel has a carbon footprint that’s far lower than petroleum diesel, making it possible to remove millions of pounds of carbon dioxide from the air. When used in its pure form, biodiesel can produce nearly 76% fewer emissions than petroleum diesel — and even when incorporated into petroleum fuel blends, it can make a considerable impact. Additionally, biodiesel use helps slash other harmful emissions, from carbon monoxide to hydrocarbons and beyond.
4. A safer energy source. Biodiesel is safer to make, reducing the need for dangerous drilling processes to access the world’s diminishing petroleum reserves. Unlike oil spills, which are known to be catastrophic, killing off marine life and jarring the local ecosystem for years on end, plant-based material is less toxic than table salt. Biodiesel is also safer to store and transport. With a flashpoint higher than 130 degrees Celsius, compared with about 52 degrees Celsius for petroleum diesel, it is less likely to combust, reducing the overall environmental danger even further.
5. Locally produced, beneficial to the economy. Biodiesel is a recyclable and renewable source that can be produced locally, improving our energy security and our economy. Today, the U.S. biodiesel industry creates 60,000 green jobs, while generating $11 billion for the U.S. economy, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Community-based biodiesel programs benefit local farmers who grow the crops, while creating manufacturing jobs within the local community — both strengthening our communities and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
Districts See Positive Results
Over the last two decades, many school districts around the country have adopted biofuels with positive results. One example is Medford (N.J.) Township Public Schools, the longest-running user of biodiesel among school districts nationwide.
The school district began using biofuel in 1997, when the alternative fuel wasn’t well known, saving more than $170,000 in fleet operation costs due to the life-extending properties of biodiesel in the fuel system and related system components. Thanks to its use of biofuel, the school district has also eliminated more than 123,000 pounds of smog-forming emissions and 2,400 pounds of diesel particulate matter.
Says Joe Biluck, who recently retired as the school district’s director of operations and technology: “It’s economically advantageous for the district. It is environmentally advantageous, and from an energy security perspective, you’re reducing your petroleum usage by 20%.”
Medford Township Public Schools’ decision to adopt biofuels has also come with other benefits. For one, it has enhanced the instructional environment by exposing students to career paths in alternative energy, according to Biluck. At the same time, it has created goodwill within the community while fostering a better workplace.
“People have a feeling of pride working in a district that encourages progressive thinking and not just doing the same old thing day after day,” he says.
Another early adopter of biodiesel is Cook-Illinois Corp., one of the largest family owned and operated school bus contractors in the U.S., which began powering school buses with biodiesel in 2005.
The contractor, which operates more than 2,000 school buses in the Chicagoland area, found that biodiesel reduced emissions by 30% with no modifications required to its buses.
“Our feeling is why not use a fuel that's better for the environment, better for the students, and helps Illinois farmers,” says John Benish Jr., the bus company’s president and chief operating officer. “For us, fuel is everything. We have to be able to rely on it each and every day.”
More recently, when Washington state introduced legislation requiring state agencies to employ either electric vehicles or biofuels to reduce emissions, the Edmonds School District embraced biodiesel. With one of the newer bus fleets in the area, the district knew it needed a solution that would allow it to continue using its existing vehicles.
With 116 diesel buses in use, a B20 blend made up of 20% recycled biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel was the perfect choice to help Edmonds School District meet its emissions goals for its existing vehicles for little to no additional cost. Biodiesel has a carbon footprint up to 85% smaller than petroleum diesel.
Tyson Keever is the cofounder and chief operating officer of SeQuential, a commercial biodiesel producer. He has helped develop a network of over 85 biodiesel retailers in Oregon and Washington, as well as a division that collects the spent cooking oil used to produce the company’s own fuel.