Renewable fuel production heats up in Kern
Renewable fuels production is becoming a bigger focus in Kern lately as investors launch projects that reinforce the county’s prominence in biofuels and advanced facilities are proposed for deriving bioenergy from local waste streams. Final preparations for a new renewable diesel project at the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway have roughly coincided with the recent expansion of a plant southwest of Bakersfield that leads the state in production of biodiesel. Plans are being made, meanwhile, for recycling centers that would turn household and other organic waste into biomethane, among other projects under consideration. Cooperation taking place locally aims to build on Kern’s momentum. Enthusiasm is running high as local initiatives stand to receive state money. But becoming a true center of excellence may depend on factors beyond local control.
That possibility isn’t stopping local energy leaders from pursuing a collaboration geared toward capitalizing on Kern’s existing strengths in renewable fuels. One of the industry players participating in the county’s B3K Prosperity economic development initiative is Jennifer Haley, president and CEO of Kern Oil & Refining Co., a 155-employee plant that makes renewable diesel and other fuels at its 26,000-barrel-per-day refinery near Lamont. As her own company looks for strategic partners to do more waste-to-fuel processing and production of ultra-low-carbon intensity fuels, she sees the B3K collaboration as the best way to put local talent and other resources to use creating good local jobs. “It’s how do we pivot or how do we evolve toward managing that carbon intensity and meeting our climate goals?” Although it’s hard to say what products and technology will finally help California achieve its goals, she added, “I think we can define what the future looks like and be a part of the solution.”
California imports most of its biodiesel, just as it imports most of its crude oil. But to the degree that turning California’s growing stream of organic waste into energy is a local affair, at least, Kern is expected to attract investment in the months and years ahead, as the state requires municipalities to divert food scraps and other organic waste away from landfills to fight climate change. J.D. Gessin, operations CEO at West Coast Biofuels, is working to convert an idle produce plant in McFarland into a biodiesel and renewable fuels plant serving the commercial transportation industry. It is expected to employ more than 20 people turning waste oils such as grease and rendered fats into fuel for agriculture, heavy machinery, aviation, tractor-trailers and, eventually, maritime transport.
Separately, the company hopes to deploy a series of modular bioenergy refineries in Kern and as far north as Stockton to gasify organic waste that otherwise heads to a landfill. Each facility would employ three dozen or more people and process 20 to 30 metric tons of waste. Gessin said the company expects to eventually produce not only conventional liquid renewable fuels for decarbonizing commercial transport in California but also renewable electricity, biomethane and hydrogen. Local dairies equipped with large manure digesters also produce biomethane for use in Central Valley transportation. The facilities have ramped up quickly in recent years with state subsidies for capturing and harnessing a potent greenhouse gas methane that otherwise vents to the atmosphere.
In 2020, 589 million gallons of renewable diesel accounted for only about one-sixth of California’s total use of diesel fuel, according to the California Energy Commission. Renewables’ share is expected to jump 40 percent just with the project Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc. is preparing to begin on a portion of the former Big West property. Expected to employ more than 100 workers, the plant is planned to produce 15,000 barrels per day, or 230 million gallons per year. Like other local plants, its feedstock will include used cooking oil and rendered fats, though eventually it is expected to incorporate oil from a crop called camelina. Crimson’s operation on Millux, now responsible for 36 million gallons of biodiesel per year, has been the state’s largest producer of the fuel for almost 10 years. It brings in used cooking oil from as far north as Seattle, but still produces less than California biodiesel sources like Singapore. Still greater potential may lie in biomethane and hydrogen produced from organic waste.
Executive director Julia Levin of the Bioenergy Association of California said the state’s capacity for producing biomethane is pegged at the equivalent of 4 billion gallons per year of diesel — a third more than California’s demand for that fuel — using only waste from landfills, wastewater treatment, animal manure, fats, grease and biomass such as ag trimmings. She noted hydrogen could also be created from such sources. The California Public Utilities Commission has helped by requiring natural gas utilities to incorporate biomethane into the fuel it delivers residential customers for use in heating, cooking and drying. Levin said it won’t be long before more jets, ships and heavy-duty trucks are running on the fuel, given that some forms of transportation won’t easily adopt batteries. There are signs as well that state government is preparing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in biomethane, hydrogen and other renewable fuels. She predicted growing demand as California works to replace the feedstock fueling its natural gas power plants and looks for different forms of long-term energy storage. “I don’t think we’re going to see market saturation for a long time,” Levin said. “The problem is opposite right now. We need to ramp up production much more quickly.”