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Reflections on the 53rd Earth Day and the Clean Energy Future

    This April 22 marks the 53rd anniversary of Earth Day. What has changed in that more than half a century? Just about everything. Basic calls for protecting our air and water, as well as preserving our land, were the foundation of the first Earth Day. Now tackling climate change is the clarion call of our time. It is complex in science, global in scope and a daunting challenge in the search for solutions.

    What’s happened with diesel technology in the last 53 years? Everything. It became the prime mover for 15 sectors of the global economy. It’s under the hood of more than 90% of all commercial trucks, as well as virtually every freight train, workboat, and barge in our global goods movement system. It has powered the construction machines that mine the earth for essential elements that are the building blocks of manufactured goods. Diesel has helped build every dam, road, railway, bridge, and building around the world. It’s the power behind most agricultural equipment that enables farmers to feed our growing world. Diesel is the gold standard for generating electricity when the grid can’t deliver. 

    It has evolved from a rudimentary engine with simple mechanical controls to today’s high-tech engine governed by electronic and computer controls, monitoring and balancing power demands, fuel consumption and emissions on a real time basis. Diesel engines’ capabilities have only grown, with more fuel efficiency, power density, greater reliability, and durability. For their part, fuels have also evolved, as ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel arrived and enabled advanced emissions control systems now standard on all new technology diesel engines. The biggest news in fuels is the rapidly expanding use of high-quality biodiesel and renewable diesel fuels that have emerged in the last decade.  

    All of this, along with achieving near zero emissions, is where we start the next chapter for diesel engines. How will diesel technology help meet the challenge of climate change and what might that look like?   

    First, successfully getting to a clean energy future depends a lot on diesel power today. The recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law pours $400 billion dollars into improving the nation’s infrastructure; much of it leaning toward new clean energy systems. The Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 earmarks $1.2 trillion for broader infrastructure spending. Successful implementation of these laws will require massive amounts of diesel power. 

    A key part of diesel’s role in meeting the climate challenge is how it is fueled and making the technology more efficient and lower emissions. A key attribute of diesel technology is its ability to utilize a range of blends of biomass-based diesel fuels. Biomass-based diesel (BBD) offers immediate greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reductions. Investing in BBD in combination with battery electric (BE) technologies achieves the greatest reductions in total GHG emissions over the next 20 years. Both BBD and BBD + BE surpass the carbon reduction benefits of continuing to use Petroleum Diesel (PD) while waiting to transition to BE.

    A shift to electrified power demands more diesel equipment, vehicles, and vessels to help build the land-based infrastructure of towers and underground systems to support the necessary enhanced electrical grids as well as distribution networks. Installing on and offshore wind turbines to generate clean electricity demands a fleet of diesel-powered vessels, trucks, and equipment to help transport, install, and maintain the turbines.

    Demands for rare metals and minerals to produce batteries to power electric vehicles is expected to soar. In some scenarios, copper and nickel demand could exceed supply by 5-8 million and 700,000-1 million metric tons, respectively. Another example, shows that generating one terawatt-hour of electricity from solar and wind could consume, respectively, 300% and 200% more metals than generating the same number of terawatt-hours from a gas-fired power plant, on a copper-equivalent basis. Extracting these rare metals at mines around the world requires a large amount of diesel powered machines and equipment. Building new battery factories to supply passenger vehicles, like those underway in Michigan and Georgia, demands a fleet of construction machines and equipment which are nearly all powered by diesel. 

    According to the U.S. Department of Energy, building a national hydrogen delivery infrastructure is a big challenge that will take time to develop and will likely include combinations of various technologies. Delivery infrastructure needs and resources will vary by region and type of market—for example, urban, interstate, or rural. Infrastructure options will also evolve as the demand for hydrogen grows and as delivery technologies develop and improve. By some estimates, more than 680 large scale hydrogen projects reflecting $280 billion in investment are now in motion around the world, including new hydrogen production facilities and terminals.

    The mosaic of new fuels and energy systems that will define the clean energy future is gradually emerging. Diesel technology is not only helping build that future but will be a part of it through the use of low carbon renewable biodiesel fuels. Even though new fuels and power technologies like hydrogen and electric are now rapidly emerging, they all have contingencies and uncertainties to overcome. Infrastructures must be put in place, vehicles optimized and proven, and customers convinced. None are fully positioned or developed to displace diesel today and demands of the global economy aren’t waiting for alternatives to diesel. Decarbonization is a team sport. Continued progress making all internal combustion engines lower in emissions, more fuel efficient and using low-carbon fuels ensures critical progress toward meeting future climate objectives today.  And that is worth remembering as we observe the 53rd Earth Day on Saturday.