There is an urgent need to substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as part of the fight against climate change. The long-term goal in the U.S., as in many other parts of the world, is net-zero carbon by 2050, but interim reductions must be achieved much sooner.
There is also an increasing awareness of the critical role of supply chains in modern life — not least due to semiconductor shortages and COVID disruptions causing problems around the world over the last few years. More generally, households and businesses understand they need to reduce, reuse, and recycle to minimize their environmental impact.
At present, 25 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia), currently have electronics recycling laws setting rules for how waste and end-of-life items are handled. And society's attitudes about unnecessary consumption, such as fast fashion, are shifting toward a new perspective.
This new approach is described as the "circular economy," where production and consumption involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible. This approach contrasts with a traditional linear approach, where items are made, consumed, and then thrown away.
The concept is easy to understand for physical goods, but how can mission critical power plug into the circular economy?
Biofuels are key
For mission critical power, diesel generators are a proven, reliable solution widely used around the world. But diesel gensets emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and other unwanted gases and use fossil fuels that cannot be replaced.
Biofuels, such as hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), provide a stable alternative to diesel that supports the concept of the circular economy. HVO is made from waste products and residues that don't impact agricultural land use, including vegetable oils, animal fats derived from the residues of the meat and fish industries, and used cooking oils.
This production from waste means that HVO is a sustainable alternative to diesel, or to first-generation biofuels and the manufacturing process. Since it is made from waste feedstocks, HVO can be produced close to where it is used. This means supply chains are shorter than with diesel or other biofuels, and there is less need for carbon-intensive transport.
Another feature of the circular economy is traceability, with organizations expected to document all of their actions to demonstrate their green credentials. In the production of HVO, organizations, such as the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification, can confirm the authentication of feedstocks worldwide, providing details of where fuel was made, its exact composition, and the amount of GHG emitted during its production and transportation. This level of traceability provides end users with guarantees around environmental and ethical sustainability — for example, ensuring that fuel production has not resulted in damaging activities such as deforestation.
HVO is available today and is compliant with relevant specifications in key global markets, including North America and Europe. Various institutes and researchers have shown HVO reduces net GHG emissions by up to 90% compared to fossil diesel.
Straightforward, low-risk solution
By its very nature, anything connected to mission critical power must have low risk. Any change in emergency power systems needs to be carefully considered, with clear evidence that customers can have confidence in the solution.
Changing from diesel to another fuel, such as HVO, will naturally raise questions about risk. In fact, the production process of HVO means that the final product is similar in grade and quality to traditional diesel. Therefore, it can be used as a drop-in replacement for existing infrastructure — without modifications to the equipment or maintenance schedules. Using the existing engines is another contribution to the circular economy.
HVO is entirely compatible with the standard mix of petroleum-derived diesel fuels, so it can also be blended with traditional diesel in any proportion — increasing flexibility for the end user, who can always go back to conventional diesel if they need to for any reason.
HVO has a cetane rating of 70 to 90, while first-generation biodiesels are rated 50 to 65, and fossil diesel is 40 to 55. The cetane number is often seen as a measure of the quality or performance of diesel fuel — the higher the number, the better the fuel burns within the engine of mission critical equipment, such as generators. High cetane offers benefits such as better combustion, better cold start, and reduced emissions levels.
HVO is stable, with no bacterial growth, making it easier to handle and store than other fuels. It can be kept for extended periods of up to 10 years without notable degradation compared to just a few months for first-generation biofuels. It's not prone to oxidation or water absorption, and it can perform in harsh conditions down to minus 25°F. With a minimum flashpoint of 141°, it's safe to use in hotter climates.
One drawback is that HVO is more expensive than fossil diesel. However, increased supply will likely reduce its price, as heavy investment worldwide results in a much larger production capacity. HVO also produces slightly less power than conventional diesel, due to its lower volumetric mass. For mission critical generator users looking to achieve high power outputs over short periods, this could result in slightly higher fuel consumption.
Mission critical power systems, such as diesel generators, are essential in preventing critical risks in infrastructure and avoiding damaging power outages in places like hospitals and airports. But, continued efforts must be made to reduce the environmental impact of such equipment.
Available right now, HVO is 100% recycled and provides a cleaner, more sustainable alternative to conventional diesel and biofuels. Compared to most conventional diesel fuels, HVO and fossil diesel also have a low sulphur content, further helping to reduce emissions. End users can switch to HVO, or an HVO/fossil blend, with no risk.
In the longer term, mission critical power is likely to include a mix of diesel, HVO, batteries, fuel cells, and possibly other new technologies, giving customers a broad range of options. Meanwhile, generator manufacturers must continue to deliver emission reductions through optimization of existing diesel systems — both by improving engine efficiency and capturing emissions in exhaust system after-treatments.
These technical advances, along with life cycle inventory initiatives that ensure new products and services are designed with the environment in mind, mean mission critical power is becoming greener and more efficient. And, it can play an increasingly central role in the circular economy, helping build a more sustainable future for all.