Bioheat® fuel, Bioheat Plus® fuel, and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel are poised to replace heating oil and save an industry from extinction in the fight against climate change — by Ron Kotrba
Yuletide carolers probably won’t be making their revelous rounds this holiday season, given the pandemic, but old man winter is already knocking at the door. Maybe we can’t be with our loved ones to give them their holiday gifts in person this year, but we can give our global family the gift of cleaner air, carbon reduction, sustainability, local jobs, and support for small businesses and farmers alike by using Bioheat® fuel―a blend of biodiesel and ultra-low sulfur heating oil (ULSHO).
Today, three tiers of Bioheat® fuel are well-defined and possess registered trademarks, and each brings its own set of benefits to the table. Bioheat® fuel is a 2 to 5 percent blend of biodiesel in ULSHO. Bioheat Plus® fuel consists of a 6 to 20 percent blend. Bioheat Super Plus® fuel ranges from 21 to 99 percent biodiesel in ULSHO or B100, which is 100 percent clean-burning biodiesel—the ultimate coup de grâce for the dirty image of heating oil. But two decades ago, after the concept of blending biodiesel into heating oil was first conceived, its parameters were rather nebulous.
The idea of commercializing biodiesel blends in heating oil in the U.S. and calling it Bioheat® fuel was the brainchild of one man, Paul Nazzaro, president of Advanced Fuel Solutions and supply chain liaison to the National Biodiesel Board. He called a meeting in the basement of his Massachusetts home—appropriately next to his oil tank—with Steve Howell, then the NBB technical director and president of Marc IV Consulting, and Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association (formerly the Massachusetts Oil Heat Council).
This was a Yalta Conference of sorts, but instead of three allies meeting to discuss the future of post-World War II Europe, Nazzaro, Howell and Ferrante were to discuss what would ultimately become the future of the oilheat industry—they just didn’t know it at the time. Nazzaro simply wanted to improve the quality and image of heating oil and build new market demand for biodiesel.
“Paul is a marketing genius,” Howell says. “His mission was to rebrand dirty heating oil as a new product made by American farmers that burns cleaner, is better for equipment and allows it to compete with natural gas.” Back then, natural gas was the main threat to the oilheat industry, not electrification as we see today.
Heating oil endured many challenges, particularly with fuel quality. “Customers saw heating oil as prehistoric, dirty and linked to Big Oil,” Nazzaro says. “They were losingconfidence in the fuel, not with their dealer.”
Like the purloined letter, sometimes the best ideas are hidden in plain sight. If biodiesel was so great for diesel engines, Nazzaro thought, then why couldn’t it provide those same benefits to heating oil?
He pitched the idea to Howell and Ferrante but had no idea what to call it. “I knew we had to use a different name,” he says. “I said I’d call it Bioheat® fuel just to differentiate it from biodiesel. The first time the word Bioheat® fuel was uttered was in my basement.”
Ferrante had just gotten to know Nazzaro and took the reins at MOHC. “Without trying to sound dramatic, this was career-changing for me,” Ferrante says.
From there, technical discussions ensued. “I have a letter of memorandum, dated 2003, which was my first communication to industry technical leaders on what we were trying to do, asking if they were willing to collaborate,” Nazzaro says. “This was my Declaration of Independence.”
The name Bioheat® fuel was trademarked, and the soybean groups and NBB were excited about a new multibillion-gallon market. “The pitch was a fireball,” Nazzaro says. “We lit the world on fire. But it was like herding cats with 5,000 fuel dealers in 23 states. So, I narrowed my focus to the Northeast.”
In the beginning, Bioheat® fuel was a generic term of any blend of biodiesel with heating oil. “At one point, people were putting in a half a percent and calling that Bioheat® fuel,” Howell says. “Paul didn’t like that, so we picked a minimum of 2 percent,” a floor to add lubricity lost to desulfurization.
Since those early years in Bioheat® fuel, the world has changed. While environmentalism and the fight against climate change were well-established movements even then, the laissez-faire political attitude toward global warming—along with how much time the scientific and regulating communities believed we had to reduce carbon emissions—disappeared. Urgency has taken the place of procrastination.
Recognizing the existential threat of this change, in 2019 a coalition of Northeast heating oil associations adopted the “Providence Resolution,” which calls for a 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2023, 40 percent by 2030, and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. They plan to achieve this, for the most part, with Bioheat Plus® fuel and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel.
B20 will provide the 15 percent carbon reduction needed in 2023, while B50 will cut 40 percent of carbon emissions by 2030. By 2050, B100 made from low carbon-intensity feedstock will get the heating oil industry to 80 percent carbon reduction. Howell says other measures, such as carbon offsets, will be needed to achieve net-zero status. NBB is undertaking major efforts in this regard.
“This resolution has been fully vetted by two independent consultants,” Ferrante says. “Kearney did its research and concurred this can be done, and NORA commissioned a report concluding the same. Paul, he laid out a vision back then that has come full circle today. Much of what was talked about then is happening now. He’s truly a visionary.”
An important point consumers and regulators must know is that carbon-reduction goals can be attained while using the same equipment in their houses now. “They can get to the same goals faster, easier, and without the high capital costs and potential issues associated with electric heat pumps,” Howell says.
Furthermore, studies show that some carbon reduction today is better than more carbon reduction tomorrow. Howell likens it to financial investments and compounding interest. “The detriment of carbon gets exponentially worse if you keep doing what you’re doing while you wait for a silver bullet,” Howell says. “We are better off with 15 percent carbon reduction now with B20 while waiting for other technologies to develop.”
Howell says another factor to consider is social and environmental justice. “The less fortunate and socially disadvantaged are also heating oil users,” he says. “They don’t have $25,000 to invest in an electric heat pump.” Bioheat Plus® fuel, however, costs the same as traditional fuel oil, more or less.
Technical standards for Bioheat® fuel and Bioheat Plus® fuel are already in place, thanks to ASTM work completed by Howell, NBB, NORA and others. For more than a decade, the heating oil standard, ASTM D396, has allowed up to 5 percent biodiesel, just like in on-road diesel fuel’s D975 spec. Later, blends of 6 to 20 percent (Bioheat Plus® fuel) were also incorporated into D396, but as a separate grade. “We’re working on standards for blends above B20 now,” Howell says.
In the Northeast, 17,000 oilheat systems already use B50 and higher blends, according to a NORA survey. “They wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t work,” Howell says. Technical standards cannot be set, however, on anecdotal evidence.
As such, NBB, NORA and the Bioheat® fuel technical community are conducting lab- and bench-scale work, along with field trials, to obtain information needed to secure technical standards for B50 and B100. But this work isn’t being done through ASTM—at least not yet, according to Howell.
NORA has created developmental fuel specifications for B50 and B100. The only difference between biodiesel’s ASTM D6751 specification and the developmental fuel spec for Bioheat Super Plus® fuel in B100 form is the oxidative reserve time. D6751 calls for a three-hour reserve (Rancimat test) whereas the B100 developmental fuel spec for Bioheat Super Plus® fuel is six hours. All other parameters in D6751 have been excruciatingly polished over the years, evidenced by nearly two dozen iterations and phenomenal biodiesel quality survey results recently.
Nazzaro says he received paperwork from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in November stating the Bioheat Plus® fuel and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel brands are now officially registered, roughly two years after their conception. “Customers are starting to use the labels,” he says. “Especially in Massachusetts, with the Alternative Portfolio Standard and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel qualifying for renewable thermal generation units.”
Before those trademarks can be fully embraced, Ferrante says the use of biodiesel in the heating oil retail marketplace must be expanded. “Incentive programs like in Massachusetts, mandates and low carbon fuel programs—these send a market signal to every player that this is real,” he says. “Once this happens, that’s a turning point. It’ll all flow from there. It’ll take some time, but we want to see it happen tomorrow. Time is of the essence.”
A warm house and cool planet are not the only gifts Bioheat Plus® fuel and Bioheat Super Plus® fuel can offer. Furnaces will be grateful for the gifts of lubricity and improved pump performance; less heat-exchanger fouling, leading to greater system efficiency and operational performance; less maintenance expenses; safer storage with Bioheat Super Plus® fuel’s higher flashpoint; less-offensive odor; and overall cleaner burn.
So, in the spirit of the holiday season, we may need to rewrite the song we all know and love to end something like this: “Three tiers of Bioheat® fuel, two blended fuels, and a warm house but not a warm Earth.”