Biodiesel Pays Off for Travel Center, Wholesaler

“Biodiesel has opened a lot of doors for us.” That’s what the vice president of Sapp Bros., Inc. says of the renewable fuel’s effect on his company’s travel center and fuel wholesale businesses.

The Economic Advantage of Biodiesel

Sapp Bros., Inc. has experienced the benefits of biodiesel with two different businesses.

One is Sapp Bros. Travel Centers, which operates 17 travel centers stretching from Salt Lake City to Pennsylvania, many of them along Interstate 80. The other is a fuel wholesale business, Sapp Bros. Petroleum, which sells petroleum diesel, biodiesel, biodiesel blends, and other fuels and lubricants.

“Economically, biodiesel is a good thing to do,” says Kevin Cassidy, Vice President of both the petroleum and travel center businesses. “It’s also a sustainable fuel. It’s made us more competitive.”

Biodiesel economics spur interest

The company’s travel center in Peru, Illinois, offers a case study in these benefits. Located 100 miles west of Chicago on I-80, Sapp Bros. Peru is a full-service travel center that sees 750,000 customers a year.

It was one of the first travel centers in the state to offer biodiesel blends when it introduced the alternative fuel in 2005, according to Cassidy.

“The state of Illinois established a sales tax exemption on blends of B11 and higher that still stands, and it made sense to do it,” he says. “The B100 was priced attractively, below what our petroleum diesel cost. And we were able to offer a B11 blend at 8 cents per gallon below our No. 2 ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). It went over very well with our customers.”

The infrastructure changes needed to introduce biodiesel were relatively simple. Sapp Bros. Peru converted a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank to hold straight biodiesel, or B100. Then as now, biodiesel is piped over to a loading station where petroleum fuel trucks come in, and Sapp Bros. uses splash blending by loading the B100 into the top of a truck’s tank. The truck then unloads the blended fuel into tanks that feed the diesel islands.

“To get started with biodiesel, our infrastructure upgrades were minimal,” Cassidy says. “It was around an eight-month payback on the cost.”

Utilizing B20

Cassidy is able to easily adjust the blend level and frequently goes up to a B20 blend.

“The blending economics make B20 a smart choice for us,” Cassidy says. “And I’ve had drivers say it’s cleaned up their fuel systems, cleaned their fuel injectors, and they actually get better mileage with biodiesel blends versus a regular No. 2 ULSD because of the clean injectors.”

The Peru travel center and the wholesale business run out of the location use B11 throughout the winter, and on milder winter days will move up to B20. Cassidy says by using a good cold weather additive, they’ve had no issues in storage tanks, at dispensers or with customers.

No matter the weather, he advises other travel centers to do their homework on producers and to purchase quality fuel.

“REG produces a quality product, they stand behind it, and they have the supply to meet our demand,” Cassidy says.

Biodiesel has made Sapp Bros. more competitive both against other travel centers and as a fuel distributor.

“Because we took the step and handled biodiesel, it opened up a lot of doors for us as a wholesaler,” Cassidy says. “And at our travel centers, having a diverse lineup of fuels attracts a bigger customer base. Besides filling up with fuel, they’re inside your stores. They’re shopping, maybe getting something to eat. There are benefits to bringing in new faces.”

The Bottom Line

Economics

Sapp Bros. pays less for biodiesel.
They can price biodiesel blends lower at the pump than ULSD, making them more competitive.
Helps drive in-store sales.

Infrastructure

Quick ROI on blending system.
Easy to switch blend level.

Watch: Sapp Bros. Explains Biodiesel Benefits

Biodiesel has made Sapp Bros. more competitive in the crowded travel center market. See the results.  

REG Lab Has the Answers

When the Iowa Department of Transportation has a difficult fuel-related question, it turns to the experts on the REG technical services team for answers.

For the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) fleet, fuel performance can be a public safety issue.

More than 900 of its 1,500 diesel-powered vehicles are snowplow trucks responsible for clearing roadways during Iowa’s long and snowy winters. Other trucks are used for bridge inspections and to change lights that illuminate roadways. In addition, a city fire department and ambulances fuel at Iowa DOT headquarters in Ames.

So when the Iowa DOT, which has been using biodiesel blends for more than two decades, has a fuel-related question, it needs to know exactly what’s going on and it needs answers quickly. That’s why it turns to the technical services team at Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REG) for the toughest questions.

“REG has a world-class laboratory with world-class professionals working there,” says David May, Fleet Manager for Iowa DOT. “They’re always interested in getting to the bottom of it, and their response is always timely.”

Resolving the toughest problems

May’s favorite example of this is when one of the Iowa DOT’s 50 fueling locations was experiencing filter plugging issues at the dispenser.

They couldn’t figure out why it was happening, so May took a fuel sample and the filter to the lab at REG headquarters in Ames.

The REG technical services team has a state-of the-art facility that allows them to perform a root cause analysis to determine why an issue is happening.

“What they determined was the problem was related to a drag-reducing agent, which is used in pipelines to help reduce friction,” May says.

Typically, the additive is diluted to the point that it is not a problem. REG, with the help of a mass spectrometer, an instrument used for sample analysis, was able to trace the issue to a concentrated amount of a drag-reducing agent making its way to the Iowa DOT fueling site.

“This was a very rare problem,” May says. “Rare to the extent that I asked our Iowa DOT lab and other fuel labs, and no one had ever heard of a drag reducer being present in a level that plugs fuel filters.”

Better performance with biodiesel

May and the folks at the Iowa DOT can’t tell a difference in performance when using emissions-reducing biodiesel. In fact, they see performance-related benefits.

“We believe we have fewer fuel-system-related failures because biodiesel adds lubricity,” he says. “Also, our plow operators can tell if there’s a reduction in horsepower, and we have all the horsepower that we would ever want with biodiesel. And I can say that the pricing tends to be favorable between biodiesel and petroleum diesel.”

The Iowa DOT gets some but not all of its biodiesel blended fuel from REG. But May always seeks the expertise of the REG technical services team when there’s a difficult question he needs to get answered.

“REG has been very generous in their willingness to help solve puzzles, and they don’t care whose fuel it is,” he says. “They just want to help us resolve any issues we’re having.”

"REG has a world-class laboratory with world-class professionals working there. They’re always interested in getting to the bottom of it, and their response is always timely."
David May, Fleet Manager, Iowa DOT