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Refining Your Renewable Fuels Approach for Success

Producing renewable fuels is a potentially rewarding opportunity for refiners to enhance their services for profitable and lasting portfolios. From feedstock and technology selection to project delivery methods and complementary projects, several considerations can affect the feasibility of such projects.

Consumers are playing an active role in the energy transition. Leaders in the refining industry are uniting and setting aggressive goals to meet demand and move the industry forward as efforts to decarbonize the transportation sector continue to gain momentum.

Renewable fuels have potential to make a difference for heavy-duty transportation and aviation, helping reduce the sector’s carbon impacts. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and renewable diesel (RD) are two biofuels that offer promise for decarbonization.

For producers looking to address emerging demand and pursue their own carbon reduction commitments, many considerations await. They must determine which feedstocks or technologies to select, which incentives or regulations might affect feasibility, and whether to convert existing plants or build new. An understanding of all the variables involved is critical to setting a course for successful projects.

Picking Your Pathway: Pros and Cons

ASTM International has approved seven pathways for SAF. These are brief overviews about the three most promising options:

Reducing Carbon Intensity

Current legislation incentivizes transportation fuels with lower carbon intensity (CI). Producers can consider a variety of ways in which they can reduce the CI of their product along the chain of production, distribution and usage of fuels. This also helps plant operators reap the financial incentives that can help drive project success.

Completing conversion of facilities to produce renewable fuels could be considered the first phase of a longer-term project; the next phase is to reduce the CI. Some of those possibilities:

In the field

Everything from fertilizer choice to land use changes can impact CI scores. By testing soils and minimizing manufactured nitrogen use, applying precision agriculture technologies, and leveraging field management techniques, scores can be reduced.

Transportation and logistics

How far feedstock must be transported to the plant, and by which transportation method, can make a significant difference in CI, as can how far the renewable fuel products must be shipped to their final destinations.


Producers can make a significant impact on CI through the choice of steam, electricity or other plant energy sources, as well as the chemicals used in processing. In some markets, facilities can lower their CI by using carbon capture and sequestration instead of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Feedstock selection

Renewable fuel economics can be optimized by using feedstocks not intended for human consumption when possible. Food feedstocks hurt CI scores due to the deferred land use and fertilizer charges associated with their production. However, vegetable oil feedstock pathways such as soybean oil and canola oil tend to have a higher carbon footprint than animal fats, waste oils and cover crops.

Fuel choice

CI scores can be improved by minimizing high-carbon inputs such as natural gas and choosing lower-carbon inputs (e.g., renewable natural gas) where they can be monetized through incentives. High-carbon inputs can be further reduced by finding alternatives to hydrogen (such as blue or green hydrogen), since both the purchase price and carbon value must be accounted for in biofuel plants.

Thought Leaders

Dave Collings

Senior Technical Advisory Consultant
1898 & Co.

Leah Freshwater

Project Manager
Burns & McDonnell

Meaghan McCaffrey

Managing Director, Renewables & Emerging Markets
Burns & McDonnell