Kern ‘center of excellence’ attracts another renewable fuels project

A Southern California company plans to open a renewable diesel plant in Bakersfield that would employ at least 70 people helping turn 5,300 barrels per day of dirty cooking oil and other low-grade feedstock into relatively clean fuel for powering heavy-duty trucks. UrbanX Renewables Group, a decade-old biodiesel refiner based in Long Beach, announced earlier this month that South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering Co. Ltd. has agreed to complete the project’s front-end engineering design contract. The plant is expected to open within 18 months; its location, cost and potential subsidies have not been disclosed.

As the first project in California proposing to use low-carbon refining technology co-developed by San Ramon-based Chevron Corp., the plant would add to Kern’s emerging profile as a proving ground for renewable fuels that state policymakers consider important to achieving the state’s climate goals and transitioning the county away from oil and gas production. UrbanX Vice President and CTO Addison Stark said by phone Bakersfield was deemed a good location because of industrial expertise within the local workforce and the area’s existing renewable diesel projects. “We’re excited to see this new industry being built in Bakersfield,” he said. “It’s become a center of excellence on this. … A good place to be is where other people are building (similar) projects.”

UrbanX owns an exclusive, West Coast license to technology developed by Chevron Lummus Global LLC, which is a joint venture between Chevron and Texas-based Lummus Technology. The technology is touted as producing a low-carbon fuel indistinguishable from petroleum-based diesel. It can be substituted gallon-for-gallon without need for engine or fueling-infrastructure modifications, and unlike most biodiesels, it does not need to be blended with other fuels.

Using a process CLG calls isoconversion, the plant would take in various grades of grease, including used cooking oils containing salts and other impurities, as well as rendered animal fats and potentially other waste that normally ends up in landfills. Then it would use chemical catalysts as part of conventional refining reactions to produce a homogenous fuel of consistent quality. Stark said the process’s flexibility in converting various feedstocks is a primary emphasis. He added the company currently operates a refinery in Long Beach that produces 400 barrels per day of biodiesel.

Several renewable fuels projects exist in Kern and others have been proposed, including one by a Torrance-based company that expects by January to produce 15,000 barrels per day at the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway. Although some environmental groups oppose renewable fuels because they produce emissions, such activity has been embraced by the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom as part of its push to reach carbon neutrality in California by 2045. Accordingly, the state has granted millions of taxpayer dollars to support development of renewable fuel projects.

The biodiesel industry estimates California’s use of biodiesel and renewable fuels has increased during the past decade from 15 million gallons per year to almost 900 million. Kern County business, government and community leaders are also pushing to expand such activity locally as part of the economic diversification and job-creation initiative called Better Bakersfield & Boundless Kern, or B3K. The county’s chief administrative officer, Ryan Alsop, said by email B3K has identified renewable fuel production as one of several sectors in which Kern will focus strategies for attracting and supporting businesses and new ventures such as that of UrbanX.

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