Unjamming the heating oil industry’s road to carbon neutrality

Biodiesel could provide alternative to heat pumps

AT A RENEWABLE fuels conference in January, Kevin Beckett, CEO and president of oil burner manufacturer R.W. Beckett Corp., announced that after years of research and development, the company’s much-anticipated B100 residential burner was finally entering production.  

About the size of a home office printer, this 100-percent biofuel compatible burner is poised to unjam the heating oil industry’s road to carbon neutrality, enabling fuel oil customers to eliminate fossil fuels from their homes for $700 on average without a single rebate from the state.   

“We believe we have the fastest carbon-reduction solution for the Northeast while providing safe, reliable and affordable heat,” Beckett said.  

When competitor Carlin Combustion Technologies reveals its B100 model next year, two of the three leading burner manufacturers will have brought to market a technology that, for roughly 650,000 oil-heated homes in Massachusetts, can deliver greater carbon reductions on a faster timeline – and for far less money – compared to electric heat pumps (rebate and all).   

In fact, for a single $10,000 heat pump rebate, which is unlikely to cover even half the cost of a whole house conversion, the state could retrofit 14 oil-heated homes with a piece of equipment that can be installed in a matter of hours and transition the heating systems to run entirely on Biodiesel, or B100 Bioheat® fuel, while adding no additional load to the power grid.  

Biodiesel is a cleaner-burning, renewable fuel sourced from waste stocks (such as used cooking oil) and surplus byproducts of existing agriculture (such as soybean, canola, and other vegetable oils). Over the past decade, the heating oil supply pool has been cleansed of sulfur and blended with biodiesel to create Bioheat® fuel. Commonly delivered to customers today as 5- to 20-percent biodiesel blends (B5 to B20), some of today’s forward-thinking fuel retailers are testing the limits of legacy oil burners with blends of up to 40 and 50 percent biodiesel, which is less carbon-intensive and more renewable than both natural gas and electricity. Put another way, there are Bioheat® customers in Massachusetts whose conversion to electric heat pumps would represent an increase in their carbon footprint.   

Last winter, more than 4 million households in the Northeast – and one in four in Massachusetts – used liquid heating fuel as the primary source of heat, representing 82 percent of consumption nationwide. With B100 residential burners now commercially available, policy makers in Massachusetts and surrounding states have a unique opportunity to utilize a fully mature industry comprised of local, tax-paying businesses to reduce the costs, mitigate the risks, and accelerate the timeline of decarbonizing our region.   

According to a recent study by economic consulting firm Bates White, incorporating higher Bioheat® blends in the Northeast could provide net emissions reductions of approximately 7 million metric tons of CO2 per year, which corresponds to the net emissions reduction from adding 1.6 million heat pumps – i.e. tripling the current share of residential heat pumps in the region. 

“Decarbonization of fuels currently used to heat homes and businesses can offer a cost-effective means to meet interim GHG reduction goals,” the study concludes, “easing the challenges of rapid electrification and the required buildout of renewable generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure.”  

Meet the Author

Brian Davidson

Founding director, Project Carbon Freedom
With billions of dollars of existing liquid fuels infrastructure, an established distribution network, and a robust, specialized labor force in place, renewable biofuels should be regarded as an essential part of the energy transition. A Clean Heat Standard that expands, rather than diminishes, their adoption as a complement to electrification will be far more likely to make “clean heat” an achievable standard for all.   

Brian Davidson is the owner of Distilled Communications and founding director of Project Carbon Freedom, a coalition of more than 100 agricultural and liquid fuels organizations. Project Carbon Freedom seeks to advance clean energy legislation that supports the deployment of renewable liquid heating fuel.