ALBERT LEA, MINN – Chevron Renewable Energy Group’s biodiesel facility in Albert Lea, MN is unassuming from the outside, but this plant is a beacon of innovation in the industry as the first of its kind in reducing the fuel’s carbon intensity with an on-site wind turbine. This project required a lot of problem-solving, which is where CEEM-member Zero6 Energy (formerly Juhl Energy) stepped in. This story demonstrates the benefits of smart energy policy and innovation in the industry.
BIOFUELS IN ALBERT LEA, MN
WIND + BIOFUELS, DRIVING PROFITS AND INDUSTRY INNOVATION
The road to Chevron Renewable Energy Group’s Albert Lea facility in rural Minnesota is mostly flat and surrounded by fields. A single, towering wind turbine spins in the distance, a clear symbol of the company’s commitment to lowering its carbon emissions and the carbon intensity of the fuel it produces. This wind turbine looks like any other, but is far from a standard. The first-of-its-kind, this turbine connects directly to the biodiesel facility, and on a net basis, produces all of the energy needed to run the plant. The concept seems simple but was really a years-long process working hand-in-hand with Zero6 Energy, a company dedicated to solving tricky energy problems.
THE BUZZ ABOUT CARBON INTENSITY
Reducing the carbon intensity of the fuel produced at the Albert Lea plant is at the forefront of Mike Chandler’s mind. As the Plant Manager, Mike is responsible for everything that goes on in his facility. Reducing the carbon intensity of the energy which powers the facility saves the plant money, generates more revenue for the company, and supports the local community he’s called home for nearly 5 years. Creating a more economical and profitable operating environment also means more workers at the plant, more truck drivers needed to move the product, and more money being pumped into the local economy, a fact Mike takes great pride in.
So, what is carbon intensity (CI) and why is it so important to have a low CI score? Carbon intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere per unit of energy generated. This is the metric used in the biofuels industry to quantify the environmental impact of various fuel sources. Besides the obvious benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall, reducing the CI of the product is also incentivized in the biofuels marketplace, making it a valuable endeavor to undertake.
One of the major markets Chevron Renewable Energy Group sells to is California. California’s market led the way for incentivizing low CI scores with the state’s low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) which is designed to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels used in the state. The LCFS works by setting a declining cap on the average carbon intensity of transportation fuels, and requires that oil refineries, importers, and producers of alternative fuels comply with the cap. It has also provided an economic incentive for innovation in clean energy technology across several sectors by encouraging investment in lower carbon fuels such as renewable natural gas, electric vehicles and other sustainable sources.
Chevron Renewable Energy Group recognized an opportunity to take advantage of this smart energy policy by pairing renewable energy with their plant to reduce their carbon intensity, thus increasing the value of their fuel while simultaneously cutting costs at their production facility and adding value to their local economy. Win, win, win.
John Sens, Sustainability Manager for Chevron Renewable Energy Group commented, “The California LCFS program has been a big market signal to the industry to innovate and they’ve incentivized companies like us to build more renewable fuel capacity.”
Chandler added, “Anything that you can do to lower the carbon that it takes to produce your fuel adds a lot of value to your products in the marketplace so it’s a huge competitive advantage for us.”
PAIRING RENEWABLE ENERGY WITH THE PLANT
For a project with so many obvious advantages, there were not any examples to follow for Chevron Renewable Energy Group. That is where Zero6 Energy (formerly Juhl Energy) stepped in. President Clay Norrbom described the company, “We’ve been around for 30 years and we’ve always been a clean energy company and we see ourselves today as a problem solver. We work with companies, communities and investors to identify, build and invest in clean energy projects.”
The relationship between the two companies started nearly five years ago when Chevron Renewable Energy Group was looking for help with reducing carbon intensity across their entire operation. It took almost two years of analysis before Albert Lea was identified as the best opportunity and for the plan to add renewable energy to the plant to solidify. From there, it was another two years to plan and construct the turbine before it became operational.
Sens explained the significance of being the first dedicated, directly connected wind-powered biodiesel plant, “The wind turbine that we’ve installed at this facility is a proof of concept of the LCFS’s provisions for installing a renewable electricity project. I think it’s a really important demonstration to the industry that it is actually possible to get this constructed and to adhere to all the compliance requirements so hopefully other companies will take that as an example and run with it and build more renewable energy projects to fuel their own plants and lower carbon intensity everywhere.”
The 2.4 MW wind turbine at the Albert Lea facility produces enough electricity on a net basis to offset the usage of the plant on a yearly basis. The turbine will save approximately 49,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the first 10 years, which is the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from 121 million miles driven by an average passenger vehicle. Electricity use is one of the factors in the production process that Chevron Renewable Energy Group can control so using renewable energy was a huge step in the right direction.
Sens added, “The wind turbine that we’ve installed is really exciting to me because it is such a clear, obvious symbol of our goal to reduce carbon emissions and it’s literally doing it right there. We don’t get power from some power plant that’s miles away; we can see our electricity production source from our plant with our own dedicated turbine and that is really exciting to me.”
Beyond helping Chevron Renewable Energy Group achieve its sustainability goals, adding the wind turbine to the plant made excellent business sense. The turbine offsets the cost of the plant’s high electricity usage, saving the company money while increasing the value of its product in the marketplace. The local economy benefits too, “In 2020, we bought about 195 million pounds of feedstock locally. The value of the feedstock that we were procuring locally went up and that year alone we added about $50 million to the local economy,” said Chandler.
“The community in Albert Lea can see that the wind turbine is directly powering and supporting the local business that employs this many people and has a positive effect on the economy, and so we tend to see a lot more local support for the project when that is the case,” Norrbom added.
Both Chevron Renewable Energy Group and Zero6 Energy hope the Albert Lea project will show the possibilities of lowering carbon intensity in the production of biofuels. Norrbom concluded, “Sometimes people will say that renewable energy is just a drop in the bucket, that it can’t go far enough, it can’t get us enough of the energy that we need to replace traditional forms of electrical generation. What we’ve done here proves the opposite of that and it shows the promise of what can be done.”
Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a transformative period for the biofuels industry, fueled by smart energy policy and innovative companies willing to do the work.