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InvestigateWest: Cascadia needs stronger clean-fuels push.

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Frank Lemos (Provided photo)
Frank Lemos (Provided photo) Photo Gallery

These days Frank Lemos manages a shipping operation, but the former truck driver still gets behind the wheel occasionally to train new drivers or to fill a staffing hole. When he does, he notices a big difference. The firm recently moved away from conventional diesel fuel, and now there’s something missing: the permeating petroleum smell that drivers wear after a day inside a big rig.

“You come home, and you don’t get to just jump in bed if you’re tired. You have to take a shower, or else someone’s going to kick you out of bed,” said Lemos, who is operations manager for Portland-based Titan Freight Systems.

Since last fall Titan’s rigs have mostly fueled up with renewable diesel, a biofuel made by refining vegetable oils, livestock tallow and cooking grease instead of crude oil. It gets the job done just like petroleum diesel yet generates far less pollution. And it means Titan’s drivers are breathing less toxic fumes and soot, and bringing less of that pollution home.

Renewable diesel also yields far less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

Destructive wildfire seasons inspired Titan’s shift to renewable diesel a year ago, after a fire devastated Phoenix, Oregon, five miles from one of the firm’s terminals. “Doing nothing is not a course of action,” is how Titan’s owner Keith Wilson described his visceral response.

Wilson knew climate change was stoking Cascadia’s fires, and that diesel vehicles produce over a third of Oregon’s transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels cut Titan’s petroleum diesel consumption by 93% and cut its carbon footprint by over two-thirds.

Switching wasn’t a sacrifice. Wilson gets renewable diesel at the same price. And the cleaner burn reduces maintenance costs, so he figures he’s saving about 2 cents a mile — over $20,000 a year.

Titan’s move is part of a Pacific coast wave driven by clean-fuels standards enacted in California, Oregon and British Columbia. Their mandates and fees provide a $1 to $2 per gallon subsidy to renewable diesel and other low-carbon fuels.

Washington state looks to be next. The state’s House and Senate both approved a comparable program this spring and were reconciling their bills as InvestigateWest published this report.

To decarbonize, Cascadia will need an even stronger clean-fuels push. Recent research guiding finds that switching to battery-powered vehicles is the cheapest long-term solution to eliminate use of fossil fuels by 2050.

Electrification can do it all for cars, energy planners say, edging out most conventional car sales within a decade. However, electrification of fuel-thirsty heavy vehicles could take decades longer, and Washington, Oregon and British Columbia need to significantly trim carbon emissions by 2030. This makes cleaner fuels crucial.

For Washington to achieve a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, it needs to electrify vehicles as rapidly as possible and meet over a third of the remaining fuel demand with low-carbon alternatives to petroleum, according to recent research for the state. That translates to over 1.7 billion gallons of clean fuels in 2030.

“The scale is huge,” said John Holladay, who directs biofuels research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. “It’s a very aggressive scenario.”

Cascadia’s clean fuels need dwarfs what’s now commercially available. The region must scale up biofuels like renewable diesel and then do more – because there simply is not enough plant- and animal-based material to meet the need, say Holladay and other experts. Making up the difference will require fuels that are just beginning to take off, such as hydrogen and low-carbon “synthetic” fuels.

On the Road to Electric Trucks

Electrifying vehicles, homes and industries is the cheapest way to achieve the bulk of the greenhouse gas reductions required by 2050. Cars will shift quickly. Manufacturers, including General Motors, have vowed to stop producing gasoline vehicles by 2035 or earlier.

But heavier vehicles – buses, trucks, ferries and planes – are harder to electrify. Early models cost more and often can carry less than conventional vehicles. And there’s a need to build charging stations, which a report this month from the Environmental Defense Fund called “the greatest challenge of electrifying heavy-duty trucks.”

Wilson has researched electric trucks and hopes to introduce one to Titan’s fleet this year. But he figures it could take 20 years to turn over his diesel-fueled fleet. “Is it a short-term solution? My answer was no,” said Wilson.

“It’s still an emerging technology,” said Tyler Bennett, who manages decarbonization projects for Portland-area transit authority TriMet, which operates over 700 diesel buses.

Bennett said electric buses cost close to twice as much as diesel models and have shorter range. Software and charging glitches kept the first five electric buses TriMet acquired mostly out of service last year.

So TriMet continues to add new diesel buses faster than it adds electrics. TriMet plans to cease purchasing diesel buses after 2025. Nevertheless, given the rate of equipment turnover, Bennett expects diesels will still make up more than half of the fleet in 2030.

So TriMet, like Titan, set its sights on renewable diesel. Or, to be precise, “R99”: renewable diesel with 1% petroleum diesel added to help lubricate engines and to nab a $1 per gallon federal tax credit for fuel blends.

Bennett said tests on 32 TriMet buses in 2019 confirmed that using R99 cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. It also cut air pollution. That especially benefits lower-income and communities of color that historically have been targeted for transportation corridors and exposed to more diesel pollution.

And unlike earlier biofuels, using renewable diesel doesn’t require engine modifications. As Bennett puts it: “You pick up the phone and the company drops off R99 instead of diesel that day and you’re good to go.”

Renewable boom and limits

Growing experience of fleet owners — and the Pacific coast’s clean-fuel standards — have biofuels production ramping up. Renewable diesel dominates that growth. Production capacity under construction will roughly quintuple output in the U.S., and much more is in the works, according to a recent biofuels industry survey.

Oil refineries, including several in Cascadia, are retooling to refine renewable feedstocks. In 2018, BP began mixing a little livestock tallow and vegetable oil into crude at its Blaine, Washington, refinery to make a lower-carbon diesel that’s 5% renewable — blending that could scale up and spread to Washington’s four other refineries if Gov. Jay Inslee signs a clean-fuels bill this year as expected.

Canada’s Tidewater Midstream and Infrastructure, meanwhile, is among a growing number of refiners gearing up to produce pure renewable diesel. By 2023, an expansion underway at its Prince George, British Columbia, refinery should be turning 3,000 barrels of feedstocks per day into renewable diesel.

Dedicated “biorefineries” also are multiplying. A $1.5 billion-plus plant proposed for Columbia County, Oregon, not far from Portland, would turn up to 50,000 barrels per day of waste oils and fats into more than 500 million gallons per year of renewable diesel.

But how many refineries can be supplied with oils and fats? “The amount we need is not consistent with the amount that’s available,” Holladay said.

In response, biofuel producers can be expected to rely more heavily on vegetable oils. That may drive up food prices and reduce the climate benefit.

Making fuel from waste fats provides a double benefit by preventing wastes from decomposing, a process that releases methane. In contrast, reliance on harvested plant oils could further the use of palm oil, whose rising production has led to rainforest destruction in such places as Indonesia.

To hydrogen and beyond

To meet clean-fuels demand in 2030, experts project, producers will adopt new technologies and ingredients that are on the cusp of commercial production today.

One potential source of future fuels are abundant biomass materials such as wheat chaff and other agricultural leftovers, sludge from sewage treatment plants, and small trees from thinned-out forests. Biomass can be converted to methane gas and compressed to fuel vehicles. Alternatively, superheated water and catalysts can turn biomass into an oily mix known as “biocrude” that refineries can take on.

Holladay and collaborators at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington State University are working to demonstrate the feasibility of the biocrude-fuels chain. Last month, they reported continuous conversion of biocrude to renewable diesel for over 2,000 hours with no damage to expensive refinery catalysts.

The PNNL-WSU research could play a small role in the set of next-generation clean fuels endorsed by Washington state’s 2021 energy strategy: hydrogen gas made with renewable power, and liquid fuels produced by having that “green” hydrogen react with a range of materials.

Cascadia’s first green hydrogen project broke ground in March at the Douglas County Public Utility District in central Washington. The plant will use hydropower generated at the utility’s Columbia River dam to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen.

Such hydrogen can be used to propel electric vehicles that get their power from fuel cells instead of batteries. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices comparable to Douglas PUD’s hydrogen plant but running in reverse to combine hydrogen and oxygen and thus generate electricity.

Decarbonization modeling supporting Washington’s new energy strategy found that hydrogen-derived fuels could account for four-fifths of the state’s clean-fuels supply in 2030. In Europe and Asia, large renewable hydrogen projects already are multiplying.

Banning petroleum

Cascadia’s transition to low-carbon fuels is not sufficient to deliver the hydrogen and clean fuels that industries need by 2030.

Big investments promised by the Biden Administration could help. An infrastructure plan unveiled last month promises $15 billion toward large demonstration projects for emerging energy technologies, including 15 hydrogen projects.

The uncertain cost of hydrogen-based fuel processes makes it hard to predict which fuel pathways will ultimately scale up, according to Jeremy Hargreaves, energy systems modeler with San Francisco-based Evolved Energy Research who led the recent research for Washington state.

What’s certain, said Hargreaves, is that hydrogen fuels will cost considerably more than commercial fuels like renewable diesel. Which is why electrifying as fast as possible topped the strategy menu that Hargreaves’ firm evaluated for Washington state.

Environmentalists worry that expanding clean-fuels production could actually undercut early market adoption of electric vehicles.

“You are providing an incentive to continue using fossil-powered trucks and ferries, rather than shifting to electrified equivalents,” said Patrick Mazza, a Seattle-based energy analyst.

Many worry that the cost of hydrogen-based fuels could also spur new fossil fuel production. It’s now cheaper to continue using a climate-unfriendly process using natural gas that is responsible for over 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

“You are giving a new market to fracked gas, with all its air and water pollution problems, as well as questionable carbon benefits,” said Mazza.

In contrast, the concern of trucking mini-magnate Wilson at Titan Freight Systems is about ensuring that Cascadia starts getting trucks off petroleum today.

Wilson spent this winter educating Oregon trucking companies on renewable diesel’s advantages. Then, hot off an unsuccessful 2020 bid for Portland City Commission, Wilson leapt back into politics, proposing a state law to phase out petroleum diesel by 2028.

Wilson’s bill got a frosty reception from Oregon Republicans. The trucking association raised fears of renewable diesel shortages and price spikes. So, Wilson and Democratic State Rep. Karin Power, who introduced the bill, added several safety valves to the bill designed to head off price hikes.

Wilson characterizes his bill as a cost-saving measure that can improve health, grow jobs, and reverse nearly a decade of rising carbon emissions in Oregon. And, he says, wildfires are costing him customers. “We’re being compromised when we lose entire communities because of fire or smoke in the summer, because people aren’t buying fishing gear,” Wilson said.


This story is supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia is a yearlong project by nonprofit news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia led by Seattle-based InvestigateWest. To be notified when stories in this series are published, subscribe to a weekly newsletter for updates: bit.ly/invw-newsletter

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