As New York attempts to improve its environmental efficiency, biodiesel has become a key tool. Biodiesel is currently used to heat homes throughout the city and power the city’s fleet. With the first biodiesel mandates going into effect this winter, biodiesel use in New York City may continue to grow.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel is a renewable fuel made from agricultural oils, fats and greases. Biodiesel is normally blended with petroleum diesel. Biodiesel blends are identified with a number representing the percentage of biodiesel in them. Blends can range from B2, a blend with 2 percent biodiesel, to B100, pure biodiesel. Biodiesel can be used for anything that traditional petroleum diesel is used for.

Biodiesel produces fewer emissions than traditional diesel. The U.S. Department of Energy has certified that pure biodiesel produces 86 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional diesel. The Environmental Protection agency has also found that switching from diesel to a B20 biodiesel blend in vehicles produces 12 percent less carbon monoxide, 20 percent less unburned hydrocarbons and 16 percent less carbon dioxide over the life of the vehicle.

Last week, the City Council committees on Environmental Protection and Sanitation & Solid Waste Management met to discuss future plans for reducing emissions from the city’s fleet—including possible biodiesel mandates for all of the city’s diesel vehicles.

The committee heard from a panel made up representatives from biodiesel and renewable energy groups and representatives of city departments directly affected by the city’s previous fleet emission reduction laws.

In his testimony, Stephen Levy of Sprague Energy said biodiesel has become a viable option for New York City.

“There are dozens of suppliers, there has been a great history of using biodiesel of many blends and concentrations, not just here within the city, but throughout the country and it is a proven product.”

Most of the panelists supported a biodiesel mandate for the city’s fleet. During his testimony, Mike Gilsenan, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection, said his department’s plans for updating the air pollution control code involve biodiesel requirements that could affect public vehicles.

“DEP, as part of revisions to the air code, is proposing stricter standards on the city fleet including increasing the fuel economy percentages, requiring the use of biodiesel and requiring that vehicles that cannot install retrofit technology after receiving a three-year waiver, must retire that vehicle from service,” he said.

Although no official mandates have been made, most of the city’s fleet currently uses some blend of biodiesel. Scott Hedderich, the director of corporate affairs for Renewable Energy Group, said this was a good step for the city, and it should begin using stronger blends.

“Having B5 fleet wide is an excellent first step that mimics what other states have done,” Hedderich said. “Moving to a B20 is a natural next step.”

The panel also discussed the idea of creating public biodiesel requirements. Hedderich said if biodiesel works for the city fleet, then it should it will work for the rest of the city.

“If it’s good for the city fleet, if it’s good economics, if it’s good for the health and well being of New Yorkers, why stop at the city fleet?” he said. “If the city can successfully implement B20 in its fleet … the City Council should look at an innovative way to take forward thinking and apply it to all diesel vehicles.”

Most drivers would not be affected by biodiesel requirements, as few American cars run on diesel, and cannot use biodiesel. Diesel is typically used by trucks and some SUVs. Citywide biodiesel requirements would mainly affect private-sector construction and shipping vehicles.

Biodiesel can also be used with heating oil for home heating. In 2010, the City Council passed, and Bloomberg signed a law requiring all home heating oil sold within the city must be made with biodiesel by October 2012.

John Maniscalco of the New York Oil Heating Association, a group that represents oil dealers in New York City, said BioHeat is a low-sulfur blend of biodiesel and heating oil.

“BioHeat is ultra low sulfur heating oil combined with a percentage of biodiesel,” Maniscalco said. “BioHeat in New York City is 98 percent petroleum product, 2 percent agricultural.”

Although critics of the law argue that BioHeat will increase the cost of oil heating, several tax incentives have been created to keep the costs low. Last month Congress reinstated a federal biodiesel tax incentive. Until the end of 2013, suppliers of biodiesel will receive $1 for every gallon sold for both vehicles and homes. With this incentive, the price of biodiesel is equal to the price of traditional diesel.

New York State also has a BioHeat tax incentive. The state currently offers a tax credit of $.01 per gallon for each percent of biodiesel used in home heating. All city residents using the mandated 2 percent BioHeat blend will be able to file for a $.02 per gallon tax credit at the end of the year. Maniscalco said the combined tax incentives keep the cost of oil heating low.

“With the Biodiesel tax credits at the state level as well as the federal level, [BioHeat] reduces the costs,” he said.