UPS reports on renewable diesel performance, calls for bio-crude advancements to increase production

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Updated Jan 19, 2018

With both Ford and Chevy recently announcing diesel engine options for their 2019 ½-ton pickups, it’s safe to say that the nation’s oil-burners, despite ongoing emissions controversy, are not going away anytime soon.

And interest in alternative diesel fuel is not showing any signs of slowing either. One of the growing stars in that market, renewable diesel, offers lower emissions, higher cetane values and, according to the City of Oakland, reductions in maintenance.

UPS, the nation’s largest consumer of renewable diesel, took the time to answer some questions about the fuel which can be derived from a variety of plant and animal sources.

UPS’ responses followed a study on renewable diesel that it completed with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Among its findings, NREL noticed an average drop of 4.2 percent in carbon dioxide emissions when compared to conventional diesel.

Special thanks to Mike Whitlatch, UPS’ vice president of global energy and procurement, for taking the time to answer the following questions.

HWT: Has UPS experienced an increase in fuel mileage while using renewable diesel?

Whitlatch: Renewable Diesel is a pure hydrocarbon fuel that contains virtually no sulfur, aromatics or oxygen. As a result, RD is slightly less dense than petroleum diesel but exhibits a higher heating value on a mass (pound for pound) basis.

UPS conducted a study with NREL to test RD under a variety of conditions and operating scenarios. In lab testing, MPG comparisons varied with duty cycles.

However, our study did not consider the positive impact on diesel particulate filters and the likely thermal efficiency benefits associated with RD’s higher cetane rating.

Since we are comingling RD with petro-diesel across operations, it is difficult to discern material mileage differences.

HWT: Because RD burns cleaner than conventional diesel, has UPS been able to lessen the frequency of engine oil changes and/or after-treatment regen cycles?

Whitlatch: RD is definitely a cleaner burning fuel that is virtually free of sulfur, oxygen and aromatics.  RD also provides extremely high cetane ratings which allows for more efficient combustion especially during start cycles.  RD exhibits nearly identical combustion characteristics to diesel.  We have not studied the ability to extend oil change intervals.

HWT: What are UPS’ overall impressions of RD? Will its roll grow in the company’s alt fuel lineup?

Whitlatch: RD is an advanced generation bio-fuel that meets or exceeds petroleum diesel ATSM D975 standard. This means that RD is a drop-in fuel that can be used in any vehicle that uses diesel fuel and ensure it is covered under manufacturer warranties.  As a pure hydrocarbon, RD provides significant advantages over other types of alternative fuels since RD can be “dropped into” the existing supply chain and used without blending or special handling.  Most importantly, RD offers superior cold weather performance and can be shipped on the U.S. refined product pipeline systems allowing for comingling with petroleum diesel at downstream terminals.

HWT: Carlton Rose, president of global fleet maintenance & engineering at UPS, said at ACT Expo in 2016 that he was concerned about the RD supply chain—that UPS could not get enough of the fuel. Has RD supply changed for the better?

Whitlatch: Currently, RD production occurs at purpose built small scale “refineries” that utilize hydrotreating technology to convert vegetable oil and waste fats into a premium-quality fuel. Production is currently limited.  However, we are optimistic that the same technology applied to RD may also be used in the future to produce a bio-crude from renewable feedstocks. If successful, “bio-crudes” could be co-processed in existing large scale petroleum refineries to produce a wide variety of fuels with renewable content on a much larger scale only limited by feedstock availability.

HWT: What RD suppliers does UPS currently use?

Whitlatch: UPS purchases from Neste, REG and AltAir.

HWT: Has RD fuel use at UPS increased since 2015?

Whitlatch: In 2016, UPS used over 13 million gallons of pure RD — almost a 2.5X increase over 2015.

HWT: Do consumers really care all that much about UPS’ use of alternative fuels like RD? What’s the overall impact of alt fuel use on customer perception and profitability?

Whitlatch: Customers expect corporations to be responsible stewards of the environment and take steps to reduce their carbon impact. Our customers expect the same from us.  RD provides transportation companies with an alternative to petroleum-based diesel that significantly reduces CO2 equivalent emissions and can be “dropped” into the supply chain without special handling or blending.

HWT: How have RD prices compared to conventional diesel?

Whitlatch: RD prices in the U.S. have been competitive with diesel economics.  The EPA RFS and California’s LCFS programs support the economics of RD and other renewable fuels.