How A Waste Vegetable Oil Fuel Can Reduce Heating Emissions at Colleges and Universities
By Sierra Spencer, Swarthmore College ’18
Let me first set the stage. As you probably know, our climate has been warming at unprecedented rates and levels, with direct links to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. In order to contribute to the mitigation of climate change, colleges and universities must step up to be leaders in innovations and technologies to reduce their carbon emissions. If colleges and universities with the resources to do so are not stepping up, then how can we expect the entire world to transform?
Enter biofuels. Biofuels are a renewable fuel that reduces the carbon emissions that come from heating. Heating constitutes a significant portion of emissions (40% of emissions at my home institution, Swarthmore College, came from heating in 2016, according to Swarthmore’s Energy Use Status Report for 2016).
Carbon Neutrality of Biofuels
Traditionally, fossil fuels are burned to meet heating demand, but this releases carbon into the atmosphere that would have otherwise been stored underground for thousands of years.
Biofuels, a fuel made from plants or recently living material, are a carbon neutral replacement of fossil fuels for heating. When a biofuel is burned, carbon is still released into the atmosphere – so how are these emissions any different from those from a fossil fuel? The emissions from biofuel involve an equal exchange of atmospheric carbon – meaning they do not add any net carbon to the atmosphere. Throughout the life of the plant or material, carbon is taken from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. If the material is not burned, it decomposes naturally and releases the carbon taken up throughout its life back into the atmosphere. Similarly, this sequestered carbon gets released if the material is burned instead of being allowed to decompose. Therefore, there is no net addition of carbon to the atmosphere by burning a biofuel.
In addition to avoiding adding net carbon to the atmosphere, using biofuels instead of fossil fuels also avoids many of the other destructive impacts of fossil fuels, such as mountaintop removal and human health effects.
Source of Biofuel
The primary materials used for creating heating fuels are wood, energy crops such as soybeans, or waste vegetable oil. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option.
A wood-derived biofuel may be a practical option for a location close to abundant forests and is sustainable in its utilization of logging waste products. However, a wood-derived biofuel cannot be used with most equipments and would require costly changes.
On the other hand, crop-based biofuels, such as from soybeans or a waste vegetable oil, are considered to be “drop-in” and can be used with existing equipment, reducing the expenses of being able to use these fuels. However, while a waste vegetable oil utilizes a waste product, a virgin soybean-based biofuel requires crops to be grown specifically for energy, which diverts food from the food supply and requires intensive use of resources such as land, water, and fertilizer. Therefore, a waste vegetable oil fuel is often times the most sustainable and feasible option for colleges and universities looking to reduce their emissions from heating.
Feasibility and Viability of Biofuels
There are multiple considerations that must be made in assessing the technical and economic feasibility, as well as the viability of a biofuel.
Transportation, storage logistics, burning the biofuel with the heating equipment, and receiving a permit all factor into the technical feasibility of using a biofuel.
Here, the boilers at Bates College burn a wood-based biofuel.
The cost of a biofuel and its competitiveness with fossil fuel shape the economic feasibility. One question that must be answered in addressing the economic feasibility is what price is a college or university willing to pay to reduce their heating emissions? Making the changes necessary from the current and destructive fossil fuel-based heating system will not be free.
The viability of a biofuel is based on the supply availability. There is only a finite amount of waste vegetable oil produced (perhaps a greater incentive to start eating more french fries!) and an even lower capacity for this waste vegetable oil to be made into a product that can be combusted for heating. Biofuels are a viable option if there is enough waste vegetable oil being produced and that can be collected. Additionally, viability requires sufficient vendors and facilities to refine the waste vegetable oil to a biofuel.
In conclusion, a waste vegetable oil fuel may be a way for colleges and universities to reduce their emissions from heating. While the production and combustion of biofuels seem to be technically feasible, the viability and economic feasibility remain the major hurdles for widespread biofuel usage. In terms of economic feasibility, decision makers at colleges and universities must keep in mind that reducing emissions will not be free. Regarding supply viability, perhaps the interest of colleges and universities will help boost the market for waste vegetable oil biofuel products and improve the security and availability of the raw and refined products.
While questions regarding the viability and economic feasibility may remain, the major advantage of a waste vegetable oil fuel is that no changes to heating equipment are necessary, reducing the risk of dipping a toe into biofuels. Biofuels may be a good, if not the best, strategy for colleges and universities to reduce their emissions from heating and contribute to efforts to mitigate climate change. The other half of the equation, which we can start working towards immediately, is reducing the energy demand. By setting the thermostat a few degrees warmer in the summer or cooler in the winter and reducing the amount of fuel that must be used, we can work to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change.
I would like to acknowledge the following people for their contributions to my research and knowledge:
Ralph Thayer, Director of Maintenance
Carr Everbach, Chair of Engineering Department
Aurora Winslade, Office of Sustainability
Nathan Graf, Office of Sustainability
Tom Cochrane, Facilities
Peter Jaquette ‘74, Sustainability Sage
Tom Sahagian ‘74, Sustainability Sage
Larry Eighmy, Mike Young, and James Hayes of The Stone House Group
Taylor Chiang ‘18, Image Design
This blog was submitted to the Greening Forward Blog Competition by Sierra Spencer and selected as one of the winning posts.