Biodiesel and Ethanol

What You Need to Know About Renewable Diesel

March 2016, Government Fleet - Feature

by Shelley Ernst - Also by this author

(L-R) Richard Battersby, City of Oakland, Calif.; Pat O’Keefe, Golden Gate Petroleum; and Neville Fernandes from Neste are pictured after the City of Oakland announced its switch to renewable diesel. Photo courtesy of City of Oakland
(L-R) Richard Battersby, City of Oakland, Calif.; Pat O’Keefe, Golden Gate Petroleum; and Neville Fernandes from Neste are pictured after the City of Oakland announced its switch to renewable diesel. Photo courtesy of City of Oakland
At a Glance

Fleets switching to renewable diesel have cited the following benefits:

  • Reduced emissions
  • Using a fuel made of renewable sources
  • Using the same infrastructure as diesel with no additional costs
  • Cost-competitive in certain areas
  • No performance issues
  • Reduced or eliminated need for regeneration in vehicles with diesel particulate filters.

What is renewable diesel? The short answer is it’s a fuel that is chemically similar to petroleum diesel, but is 100% renewable and sustainable. In other words, it’s the latest, greenest diesel on the market. But to really understand it, it’s helpful to back up and understand the difference between it and its predecessors, petroleum diesel and biodiesel. Here’s a rundown:

Petroleum Diesel: Conventional (petroleum-based) fossil fuels are made from crude oil — hydrocarbons, organic compounds, and small amounts of metal from millions of years ago. To make fossil-based fuels such as petroleum diesel, crude oil is removed from the ground, pumped into a refinery, and refined through a heat- and pressure-based process called hydrogenation.   

Biodiesel: Unlike petroleum diesel, biodiesel does not rely on fossil fuels. Instead, it is made from vegetable oils and/or animal fats, which are renewable. It is also processed differently than petroleum diesel, using a process called transesterification. This process introduces oxygen into the fuel, which can cause issues with freezing temperature, separation during storage, algae growth, and higher emissions. Biodiesel is generally blended with petroleum diesel at a 5% to 20% ratio.

Renewable Diesel: Like biodiesel, renewable diesel is not a fossil fuel. Instead, it is made of nonpetroleum renewable resources such as natural fats, vegetable oils, and greases. “Renewable diesel, much like biodiesel, is derived from waste agricultural products, particularly waste vegetable oils and waste animal fats,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. “As long as we grow soybeans and produce livestock, the waste derived after these products have been processed into food can be refined into a clean, low-carbon fuel.” 

Renewable diesel differs from biodiesel, however, in how it’s processed. Renewable diesel is processed similar to the way petroleum diesel is produced, which makes it chemically the same as petroleum diesel. That means a few things:

  1. Because it’s hydrogenated, renewable diesel doesn’t contain ­oxygen, and therefore users will not encounter the challenges biodiesel presents relating to freezing temperature and storage.
  2. Thanks to hydrogenation, renewable diesel also burns cleaner than biodiesel.
  3. Because it has the same chemical structure as petroleum diesel, renewable diesel can be used in engines that are designed to run on conventional diesel fuel — with no blending required.

Renewable diesel burns cleaner than regular diesel, releasing less carbon, as shown in this photo. Photo courtesy of Eugene Water & Electric Board
Renewable diesel burns cleaner than regular diesel, releasing less carbon, as shown in this photo. Photo courtesy of Eugene Water & Electric Board

Fleet Experience with Renewable Diesel

Renewable diesel comes with a number of benefits: It’s made of renewable sources, it burns clean, and it works just like traditional diesel. Fleets making the switch won’t encounter performance issues, nor will they need to modify equipment or fueling infrastructure to adopt the fuel.

Schaeffer said fleets that have turned to renewable diesel have done so as part of a low-cost strategy to meet sustainability goals. “Renewable diesel fuel can allow fleets to substantially reduce carbon emissions and petroleum use, and improve air quality without sacrificing power, ­performance, or driving range.”

The City of Oakland, Calif., was one of these fleets. When renewable diesel became available commercially in northern California, the city seized the opportunity.

“At first, renewable diesel seemed like a ‘too good to be true’ cost-neutral way to achieve our goals.  But renewable diesel gives you the ability to convert your entire diesel-­powered fleet to alternative fuel overnight,” said Richard Battersby, CAFM, CPFP, manager of equipment services for the city. “When the product became available through a local supplier at a very competitive cost, it was an easy decision to make.”

The City of Oakland has been using renewable diesel in all of its diesel-­powered equipment, including Fire Department apparatuses and off-road equipment, since fall of 2015. To date, the fleet has witnessed no discernable difference from petroleum diesel, nor has it received driver complaints.

“We expect to displace the consumption of about 250,000 gallons of petroleum diesel and eliminate more than 1,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, and we have yet to encounter any drawbacks,” Battersby said. “The most common reaction I’ve experienced is disbelief that there is a cleaner burning direct diesel fuel substitute that is made from renewable sources, doesn’t require any additional expense for the fuel itself, and does not require equipment and infrastructure modifications.”

The Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB), Oregon’s oldest public utility, has also incorporated renewable diesel for many of the same reasons — and much to the same result. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions levels and use of fossil fuel, the fleet had been relying on higher ratios of biodiesel. However, price and cold weather performance presented limitations.

When UPS and the City of San Francisco both adopted renewable diesel, it caught the fleet’s attention. With further research, the fleet decided it was time to give it a try.

“We have uncovered absolutely no performance hiccups by switching to renewable diesel — it’s almost too good to be true,” said Gary Lentsch, CAFM, fleet manager, EWEB.

Today, renewable diesel powers every diesel engine on EWEB’s roster. Because it meets the ASTM D975 industry specifications for diesel fuel, renewable diesel can be used on any vehicle that uses diesel fuel, and it’s covered under manufacturer warranties.

In addition to being easy to implement, Lentsch said diagnostic alerts from telematics devices have proven renewable diesel has reduced emissions for the fleet. “When we were using biodiesel, we would get two to three alerts a week telling us a unit’s diesel particulate filter had built up with soot, requiring a re-gen,” he said. “After a few weeks of being on renewable diesel, the alerts went away.”

Between renewable diesel and ethanol-blended fuels, EWEB estimates this year the utility will be able to reduce its CO2 footprint by more than 30% and reduce fossil fuel use by more than 65% compared to 2009 levels. “Using a regular gallon of diesel fuel emits more than 30 lbs. of greenhouse gases into the air. Using a gallon of renewable diesel emits less than 10,” Lentsch explained.

Pat O’Keefe, CEO of Nexgen Fuel and vice president of Golden Gate Petroleum, a California-based distributor of renewable diesel, said fleets can expect similar environmental results. “Renewable diesel reduces emissions of greenhouse gases from 13-90%, and CO2 life­cycle emissions approximately 60-90%,” he said. “The cetane rating of renewable diesel is between 75 and 90 versus 48 to 52 for petroleum diesel, which means that renewable diesel burns more completely — and therefore cleaner — than petroleum diesel.”

What About Renewable Diesel Costs?

Renewable diesel is easy to implement, has clear environmental benefits, and doesn’t affect vehicle performance. But what about costs?

In California, renewable diesel is cost competitive with petroleum diesel and biodiesel thanks to the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCSF), which offsets some of the expense. “The largest market for renewable diesel fuel is California, where a tax and regulatory system encourages low carbon liquid fuels,” Schaeffer said. “We have seen retail prices for renewable diesel in California hover around the price for traditional ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD).”

In Oregon, Lentsch said EWEB has been tracking pricing for alternative fuel over the last five years. Currently, renewable diesel is competitive with biodiesel. “We’re seeing R99 [renewable diesel] at around 15 cents a gallon above petroleum-based diesel fuel — comparable to the cost of B-20,” he said. “Renewable diesel is still an emerging market. As we see more competition between our fuel supplies, I’m anticipating the cost to level out.”

Where is Renewable Diesel Available?

Renewable diesel may be cost competitive in some markets, but can all markets get it? Technically, all states are able to get renewable diesel, but none encourage or incentivize it the way California does. 

“Renewable diesel is primarily sold in the State of California at this time due to the fact that California has the Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” O’Keefe explained.

Neste, the oil refiner producing the renewable diesel distributed by O’Keefe’s company, said that expanding to other regions is difficult due to distribution.

“We have good logistics and distribution in California, so California for us is a very easy place where we can sell to different government fleets. In the other states, it’s a little bit more complicated, but it’s doable,” said Tuija Kalpala, marketing manager of Houston-based Neste US. The company has four plants worldwide, including in Singapore and Europe. Neste’s West Coast supply of renewable diesel comes from Singapore, and it can supply the East Coast and Gulf Coast states from Europe or Singapore, she said.

Delivery costs are higher for non-­coastal states, Kalpala said. These higher costs coupled with a lack of incentives means the fuel could be prohibitively expensive.

However, a lack of LCFS doesn’t mean fleets aren’t making the switch for the environmental benefits. Lentsch with the Eugene Water & Electric Board in Oregon knows of at least seven other government fleets in the state using the fuel, despite the fact that it costs slightly more.

The New York City fleet is also considering renewable diesel as part of its strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Increased use of biodiesel and development of renewable diesel options are important aspects of our strategy,” said Keith Kerman, chief fleet officer for the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. “We are excited about the recent growth in use of renewable diesel in California public fleets, and we are beginning our own discussions with renewable diesel suppliers.”

Schaeffer explained that while the current supply of renewable diesel is low, it may increase along with demand. “Interest in the fuel among fleets across the country could help encourage more availability for the product to meet growing demand,” he said.

Kalpala reported that Propel retail fuel stations in California selling Neste’s renewable diesel, under the name Diesel HPR, are seeing a huge success. 

Battersby is confident the demand will be there. “Many government fleets are making the switch, the State of California has mandated its use for state-owned diesel vehicles, and UPS has committed to purchase 46 million gallons of renewable diesel over the next three years. I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay.”


  1. 1. Paul Hanna, CAFM [ March 14, 2016 @ 01:32PM ]

    There will be a more compelling case when/if domestic production increases. Reducing dependence on foreign fuels has always been an important part of the argument for biodiesel.

  2. 2. Kurt [ March 17, 2016 @ 04:09PM ]

    In one place this article states that renewable diesel is chemically very similar to fossil fuel diesel. But later it states that carbon emissions are up to 1/3 of the fossil. This line of thought is an accounting scam, and has no basis in chemical fact, or actual exhaust pipe analysis.

  3. 3. Kathy [ April 01, 2016 @ 10:06AM ]

    I would like to see the sourcing of the materials in making R-99 vetted. I am concerned about deforestation and increased use of GMO crops in making it.

  4. 4. David [ April 26, 2016 @ 04:52PM ]

    The carbon reduction LCA of renewable diesel is highly influenced by the feedstock. Neste's Singapore refinery uses mainly palm oil, which has a poor carbon footprint because of the conversion of tropical peat lands to palm plantations. The USEPA requires a carbon reduction benefit of greater than 20% to be classified as a "low carbon fuel", and unless the feedstock is less than 55% palm oil, renewable diesel doesn't qualify.

  5. 5. Richard Battersby [ July 16, 2016 @ 12:58PM ]

    There are two domestic renewable diesel production facilities that I am aware of, one in Paramount, California producing about 40M gallons annually and the other in Geismar, Louisiana producing about 75M gallons annually. The Renewable Diesel in use in California is derived primarily from animal fat feedstock and is sourced from Neste. The tailpipe emission analyses are available.

  6. 6. Richard Battersby [ July 27, 2016 @ 06:57PM ]

    The third domestic renewable diesel production facility is located in Norco, LA

  7. 7. Gilbert English [ August 26, 2016 @ 02:48PM ]

    Come on East coast fleets we got to get together and work out a plan to affordably get this here.

  8. 8. Richard Battersby [ September 02, 2016 @ 08:56PM ]

    I thought I posted this earlier, but the source feedstock of the California R99 is animal fats and waste grease. While RD99 can be made from palm oil, and I agree this feedstock is harmful to the environment, the RD 99 would not eligible for the LCFS incentives and would not permitted into the California fuel supply. Contrary to what is posted above, the R99 imported does qualify for RFS RIN's and CA LCFS credits. While RD is considered identical to diesel fuel, the refining process removes oxygen and aromatics found in standard petroleum diesel, hence the emission reduction benefit. Contrary to what is stated above the engine out exhaust analysis was performed and accepted by CA ARB as well as federal DOE. If you have questions I suggest you ask first rather than spreading misinformation. Actual domestic production of the 3 plants is 275 million gallons annually (none from palm oil) and expected to increase to over 400 million gallons annually within the next couple of years from plant expansions.

  9. 9. Lee Atwater [ June 29, 2017 @ 04:23PM ]

    A great explanation
    . Congratulations.

  10. 10. greg gilbert [ September 10, 2017 @ 12:23PM ]

    Just found this site, so I'm late with this comment. As an air quality expert and CEQA practitioner I review EIRs and MNDs, providing analysis and written comments on the record for land use developments across CA. I advocate the use of RD for air quality mitigation in virtually all--but all or nearly all planning departments reject it for mitigation saying its unavailable or too costly. What RD organization exists to help me counter-argue that RD is available and cost-effective in CA? Current need: water and juice bottling operation in Shasta area with 100 heavy-duty diesel truck trips/day. County says no RD available. True? Who can help me with the availability issue?

  11. 11. Jeff [ September 25, 2017 @ 05:56AM ]

    I've been using RD99 in my off-road fleet for over four years now. I was blending D2 and B100, with a Gilbarco Encore E85 dispenser, into B20 for five years prior. No problems at all with RD99 and lower overall fueling terminal maintenance costs. But the big problem I see coming down the RD99 pike is this product has ONE manufacturer. This will likely cause sole-source contracting issues for us Government agencies.

  12. 12. Rui Silva de Oliveira [ September 29, 2017 @ 04:53PM ]

    How much energy is needed along the chain to produce 1J of this diesel?

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