Just over a decade ago, Idaho National Labs leadership asked its bus operations manager to reduce the facility’s use of fossil fuels.
“Management came to me and said, ‘Hey, Tad, we got executive orders that say we need to reduce our usage of fossil fuels. You need to go fix that,’” said Tad Pearson, who manages the federal research facility’s fleet on the 890-square-mile site near Idaho Falls.
“I didn’t know the first place to start,” Pearson said, adding that the federal research facility’s fleet includes buses, heavy equipment like bulldozers and cranes, and even emergency equipment and fire trucks.
“We have a big fleet here,” Pearson said.
Idaho National Laboratory is one of the national laboratories of the United States Department of Energy and is managed by the Battelle Energy Alliance. The laboratory has historically been involved with nuclear research, but carries out research in all kinds of areas, including renewable energy. Pearson reached out to his regional Clean Cities program, and told them about the planned transition.
“Idaho National Labs has something like 100 motor coaches that help transport employees from town to their desert remote site, and they’d used biodiesel for years,” said Alicia Cox, executive director at Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities, just over the Wyoming border. “A few years ago, we connected them with some renewable diesel, which they used for several years.”
Idaho National Labs has now used both biodiesel and renewable diesel over the last decade, but relied on fuel transported to the Rocky Mountain region from the coast. That, combined with the higher price of renewable diesel as compared to traditional diesel, means Pearson is once again looking for a cheaper renewable option.
“We are moving into the electric world with our buses now,” Pearson said. “In 2025, when the lease on our buses is up, we will start moving to electric.”
Cox explained that biodiesel is made through a different process than renewable diesel. Biodiesel is usually used as a blend with traditional diesel fuel, and most vehicles can only take a blend of up to 20% of biodiesel and 80% standard diesel. When using biodiesel, there is a reduction of 15-20% in greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewable diesel is made from a different process, and has the exact same properties as diesel fuel.
“You can 100% use renewable diesel in a diesel engine, and have significantly more greenhouse gas emissions benefits,” Cox said. “Renewable is even better than biodiesel. Biodiesel is something that a lot of people know of and have heard of, or have recognized that folks use that to have environmental benefits. And renewable diesel is a newer option.”
For the most part, the production of renewable diesel has happened on the coast, she said. In the summer of 2020, HollyFrontier Corporation announced that it would convert its Cheyenne refinery to renewable diesel production. Including a previously announced renewable diesel unit at the Artesia refinery, HollyFrontier said it expected to have a combined capacity to produce more than 200 million gallons per year of renewable diesel. According to the company, HollyFrontier plans to invest between $650 million and $750 million in its renewables business, with an expected aggregate internal rate of return of 20-30%.
“Demand for renewable diesel, as well as other lower-carbon fuels, is growing and taking market share based on both consumer preferences and support from substantial federal and state government incentive programs,” said Mike Jennings, HollyFrontier’s president and chief executive officer.
“After 86 years as a petroleum refinery, Cheyenne will take on a new challenge. We realize that this decision affects many employees, their families and the community,” Jennings said. “We are thankful to all of our colleagues in Cheyenne and will work closely with those impacted by this decision.”
According to Corinn Smith, director of corporate communications for HollyFrontier, construction of the renewable diesel facility in Cheyenne is on track to be completed in the first quarter of 2022.
“Unlike biodiesel, renewable diesel can be used anywhere that regular diesel is used, without modification to engines or infrastructure, as it is chemically identical to regular petroleum diesel,” she said in mid-March. “Made from renewable sources, it produces less greenhouse gas emissions, while performing the same as regular petroleum diesel.”
HollyFrontier will employ more than 80 full-time employees at the facility.
When asked whether renewable diesel produced in Wyoming will be available for sale or purchase in the state, or whether it will be transported out of state for usage elsewhere, Smith said, “We intend to explore sales of renewable diesel into markets where conditions permit us to do so, such as California.”
Smith said the similarity in fuels is also reflected in the price, as renewable diesel is priced the same as regular diesel, although that has not been the experience of local users.
Sarah Durdaller with Sen. John Barrasso’s office said the Wyoming Republican senator “strongly supports expanding the availability of renewable diesel to consumers in Wyoming and nationwide.”
“Renewable diesel can help us reduce our imports of foreign oil and our emissions. Unlike most biodiesel, renewable diesel can meet the same technical specifications as petroleum-based diesel. For that reason, there are not physical limits to how much renewable diesel can be used in existing diesel engines and refueling infrastructure,” Durdaller said.
At Idaho National Labs, Pearson said he’s experimented with several different fuels over the last decade. They began with biodiesel, which was difficult to manage. It plugged tanks and didn’t work in cold winter temperatures.
“We spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of biodiesel. At first it was miserable because our tanks would get plugged up … it was a mess, but we got it all figured out,” Pearson said. “Then we started hearing about renewable diesel, and how they were using it over in different countries.”
Pearson said INL took up the challenge, and began transporting renewable diesel from the West Coast for use in the region.
“We thought, ‘This is great, if we can make that work, we can go from 20% renewable to 100% renewable in the fleet deck, where we use over a million gallons a year. That is a significant thing.’ And as a national lab, we should be out leading the way, testing this stuff to make sure it is working,” Pearson said.
The fuel itself worked well, although INL switched to traditional diesel for the cold winter months.
The problem was cost, Pearson said.
“We were the only ones using it, and we used it for two and a half years, probably,” he said. “This last week on our fuel bids, if I was to continue to use renewable diesel, #2 diesel is $3.16, and renewable diesel is $7.12 a gallon. I did not feel like that was a very good way to spend taxpayer dollars, when renewable was double the cost of regular.”
He stopped using renewable diesel about a year ago. Until renewable diesel is manufactured and sold closer to home, or is used so widely that cost is not an issue, the fuel will remain very expensive, he said. Some states promote low carbon fuels, Cox said, meaning that in places like California, Oregon or Washington, companies that produce renewable diesel get a kickback from the state.
“Unless you are a state that has that, the fuel is going to be more expensive,” Cox said.
Like Durdaller in Sen. Barrasso’s office, Pearson said he was happy to move from dependency on foreign resources, and use a product that was better for the environment.
“I am not so far that way, though, that I don’t see the need for fossil fuel. There is a happy medium there,” he said. “But if I have a big fleet that I can help the environment by running a cleaner fuel, and saving on maintenance costs because it is a cleaner running fuel … I would do it in a heartbeat.
“The problem is, if you are having to pay twice as much for that, you won’t be in business very long,” he said.