Transforming Heating Oil for a Low-Carbon Future

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Reduced sulfur fuels and Bioheat blends enables dealers to better serve customers

By Ed Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.

States in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions have been working to slash the sulfur content in heating oil. By July 2018, heating oil dealers in all but a few of these states will be loading their trucks with an ultra-low sulfur heating oil (15 ppm).

The environmental benefits from these dramatic reductions in sulfur content moves the heating oil industry into a much better position as we transition to a low-carbon future. Beyond that, most heating oil dealers view higher biodiesel blends as an important tool to stay on course in that low-carbon future.

Related Article:

20 Percent Biodiesel is OK

ASTM Releases B20 Spec

In March, ASTM International announced their new performance specifications for fuel oils (ASTM D396-15a) that will accommodate blends of 6 percent to 20 percent biodiesel with traditional heating oil. (The existing No. 1 and No. 2 grades in ASTM D396 already cover 5 percent biodiesel or less.) Fuel oils covered by D396 are used in home heating and hot water applications, as well as industrial boilers and burners. The fuel blend is branded as Bioheat® fuel.

The new B6-B20 grade keeps all of the parameters contained in the existing No. 1 and No. 2 oilheat grades while adding parameters for stability and allowing a slightly higher distillation temperature for the blends. The changes are the same as those for B6-B20 in on- and off-road diesel fuel passed by ASTM back in 2008.

According to ASTM, the revised standard provides many benefits. Equipment manufacturers will use the fuel properties to design and optimize equipment to burn the fuel. Producers will know the list of properties needed to produce an acceptable fuel. Marketers and dealers will better understand how to identify and purchase a quality fuel to resell to their customers. And consumers will be more empowered to buy or require high-quality fuels.

“Having an official standard for higher biodiesel blends in heating oil will help foster consumer confidence and give blenders and distributors a needed tool to incorporate more low-carbon, ultra-low sulfur biodiesel into heating oil,” said Steve Howell of M4 Consulting, an ASTM Fellow who chairs the ASTM Biodiesel Task Force. “The data set behind these changes is one of the most extensive I’ve seen in more than 20 years at ASTM.”

Howell points to a Brookhaven National Laboratory survey of customers already using biodiesel blends that not only showed similar or better experience than with traditional fuel oil but also showed that many customers already use B20 or higher blends with great success.

“With this accomplishment,” Howell said, “work will now begin on the next level of research needed to secure official specifications for even higher blends of biodiesel in heating oil.” He also noted that agencies like the EPA and the IRS could find the revised standard valuable in regulations related to fuel quality, the environment, and tax policy.

“The oilheat industry is reinventing itself as a 21st century fuel by moving to higher blends of low carbon biodiesel and ultra low sulfur levels across the board,” said John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA). “The Bioheat renaissance gives oilheat dealers, who are mostly small, family-owned businesses, the ability to provide their customers with a desirable new product.”

The B6-B20 ASTM specifications for Bioheat® are a milestone achievement for the biodiesel industry. The move is a significant leap forward in the industry effort to boost the percentage of biodiesel that homeowners and building managers use in oilheat equipment common to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, according to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB).

The Pros and Cons

By now, we all know that biodiesel has significant environmental benefits: It keeps equipment running smoother and cleaner, which allows for longer maintenance intervals. Biodiesel has great lubricity properties that work well with ultra-low sulfur heating oil. It’s also biodegradable, nontoxic, and has a much higher flash point than traditional heating oil, making it safer to handle and a more environmentally friendly fuel.

On the other side of the coin, for most small heating oil dealers, higher blends of Bioheat® are limited to what’s available at the local rack. And while most Bioheat® dealers will tell you that they’ve been selling B20 blend for a number of years without any serious issues, it’s hard for fuel dealers to shake extreme cold weather concerns with the higher blends, particularly in outdoor tanks.

Similar to ethanol, biodiesel does have food vs. fuel issues, but to a much lesser extent. That’s due to its wide diversification of both food and non-food sources (like restaurant grease and animal fats) used as feedstocks. For the most part, irrigation water is only a background issue for biodiesel, although there are some environmentalists that say that producing biodiesel from soybean consumes unsustainable amounts of water.

In the end, transitioning to ultra-low heating oil and offering higher blends of Bioheat® are both important steps in providing our customers with cleaner fuel products, and competing in tomorrow’s low-carbon energy market.

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