Scoring Returns with Renewables

With the decarbonization movement underway, ethanol producers installing solar and wind power offer a blueprint—and benefit-reveal—for carbon intensity reduction. And they're not doing renewables alone, but in parallel with other low-CI strategies.
By Luke Geiver | April 18, 2022

From Kansas to California, ethanol producers are putting greater focus—and investment—into lowering their carbon intensity scores. The combination of financial incentive, participation requirements linked to the California renewable fuel market, and a growing public mandate to push the transportation sector to lower carbon emissions, has created both a challenge and an opportunity for producers.

The opportunity is two-fold. Production facilities executing on multi-pronged plans to decarbonize are earning access to the California market and its insatiable need for clean liquid fuel in compliance with its state-mandated carbon-level requirements. More broadly, plants working to lower their respective carbon scores are helping the biofuel sector graft onto the leading edge of climate change mitigation and the quest for net-zero emissions. The challenge for producers directing both mind- and monetary-capital to their carbon scorecards is complex. But, as a handful of early adopting facilities have shown, adding wind, solar, combined heat and power (CHP), carbon accounting or other carbon score reduction strategies can not only yield bottom-line results, but be accomplished without impeding daily operations.

Regional Renewables
In 2019, Western Plains Energy’s team running the ethanol plant in Oakley, Kansas, committed to lowering its carbon intensity score. Derek Peine, general manager of WPE, says the plant adopted a multi-phase plan to decarbonize its production. To help, WPE partnered with Faith Technologies Inc., Juhl Energy and GE Renewable Energy. FTI served as the engineering, procurement and construction player while Juhl Energy, a clean energy solutions provider, acted as the lead developer for WPE.

Although Peine and his team had identified several pathways to lower the plant’s carbon score,
supplementing a portion of the plant’s fossil-based energy with wind offered the quickest option. In 2019, WPE created a separate entity focused solely on the wind project, allowing its shareholders and investors to participate. Because the site’s capacity factor—or its ability to produce wind—was high, the team knew harnessing the power of the Kansas plains would not present any major daily hurdles. The issue, Peine explains, was in the size of the wind project and the location.

“Everyone wants to do industrial size wind farms or a residential size project,” Peine says. “There are not a lot of wind turbine installation projects in the ones and twos.”

To overcome the sizing issue, WPE turned to FTI and Juhl. “This is a unique niche in the market. What we are talking about here is using a full-scale industrial turbine in an installation that is onsite for [industrial application],” says Clay Norrbom, president of Juhl Energy. “That is where it is pretty unique.”

The principal objective of the wind turbine installation project from the outset was different from most wind generating goals. WPE wanted to replace the 2.7 MW of electricity needed to run its plant. That’s it. There was never a plan to push excess wind energy back to the grid. As Peine explains, in WPE’s part of the country, wind energy is abundant and, in some cases, reverting wind energy production back to the grid can actually cost money.

Norrbom’s connection to GE Renewable Energy gave WPE access to the wind giant’s options for industrial turbines. FTI, a company that has worked with Juhl on a handful of other similar installations, worked to locate and install the wind power generating system. For the entire system to act as a carbon intensity score reducer, it had to be connected behind the ethanol plant’s electrical meter. According to Charlie Fredrickson, vice president of EnTech Solutions (a division of FTI), doing that makes a project inherently difficult.

Norrbom says a lot of time was spent working with utility partners to figure out how to make the project work technically, within permitting regulations and for what WPE needed. Getting a construction crew—normally suited for an entire wind farm buildout with concrete pads and other infrastructure—wasn’t easy, but doable for a one-off. “Whenever you are talking about getting close to a plant or a facility like this, most wind farms you try to develop as far from other residences and businesses as possible,” Norrbom says.

After FTI and Juhl worked to right-size the turbine, FTI oversaw the pre-construction and then the full build-out and integration. The turbine pad is roughly 60-feet in diameter. The EPC team did the land work, turbine assembly and most electrical wiring of the entire system prior to erecting the tower. After the mechanical installation was complete, multiple parties involved helped test the system prior to commissioning. Final commissioning did require a short plant shutdown (a few hours), but the outcome was seamless, according to Peine.

“From a plant operational standpoint, it doesn’t change anything,” he says. “The operations team doesn’t even know it is there because it is fully integrated.”

As part of GE Renewables service, they remote monitor the turbine continuously. Fredrickson’s team also monitors the turbine. Norrbom says the project came in on time and budget. From start to finish, including site survey, engineering designs and waiting on the actual turbine blades and tower pieces to be built and delivered, the wind endeavor took roughly one year. Depending on land access and permitting in each county or state, the process can take longer, Fredrickson says.

Norrbom’s approach to project financing is straightforward, but also flexible. “We know that capital doesn’t grow on trees. A lot of producers have other uses for it. We try to keep a very open, transparent approach and simply cut to the chase,” he says. In some cases, Juhl will own a project … if a customer doesn’t want to.” Although Juhl and FTI have completed a handful of these single turbine wind installation projects across the country, there are few, if any, that are like the WPE project.
“We pride ourselves on helping our customers create good business solutions, and right now the ethanol producers are at a pretty important juncture,” Fredrickson says. “They have a lot of pressure to reduce carbon and increase production, all while showing the positive impact they are making.”

Fredrickson, Norrbom and Peine all agree that renewable energy applications in ethanol production are as physically genuine as they come. While some industrial facilities can “greenwash” their systems by purchasing wind or other renewable energy offsite to show they are participating in renewable energy production, ethanol facilities do not have that option when it comes to carbon intensity score reduction. “The energy has to be produced and consumed onsite,” Norrbom says.

Peine and his team in Kansas are fully aware of the benefits related to true renewable energy production and use at their plant. The sector of the economy with the largest carbon emissions profile by volume is transportation, he notes. “Twenty-nine percent of all emissions come from transportation,” he says. “Anything we in the ethanol industry can do to help reduce the carbon profile is important.”

It is clear WPE believes in wind. The plant is already evaluating more wind energy to power expanded operations and other power needs. Peine is proud that his team, including FTI and Juhl, were able to provide a blueprint for producers across the country looking to get into wind power installation onsite. “The ethanol industry is good at process technology improvements,” he says. “With wind, understanding the turbine industry and how to work with your local utility is important. And like most things, the key to all of this is to get good partners.”

Catching the California Sun
Wind installations located on the meter side of ethanol facilities may be a new occurrence across the industry, but for some entities like California-based advanced biofuel producer Aemetis Inc., harnessing the benefits of renewable technology is nothing new. Over the last six months, Aemetis, led by CEO Eric McAfee, has been busy with several projects. The plant has signed an agreement to purchase a new expansion site, signed MOUs with eight airlines for the supply of renewable fuel, completed a seven-mile biogas pipeline and also started or completed projects involving solar and battery storage.

“Decarbonizing ethanol is the future,” McAfee says about his plant’s ambitious plans to replace existing process infrastructure with renewables. Like Peine, McAfee points to the requirements of the California Air Resource Board to reach a specific carbon intensity score to sell biofuel into the state’s massive market.

To date, the plant has completed several renewable energy additions that have lowered its CI score and made the company a major supplier of fuel to the state. To help power the plant’s operations, a roughly 2 MW solar array was constructed with an additional 1.9 MW battery storage set-up.

Other producers are on the same track with renewables. In 2018, Alto Ingredients became the first ethanol producer in the country to utilize solar to power one of its plants, installing roughly 5 MW of onsite power. Other biofuel companies have also turned to solar, including Gevo and POET, which installed a 400-kilowatt solar array at its company headquarters last year.

At Aemetis’ Keyes, California, plant, natural gas power has been substituted for a combination of solar and hydroelectric power. In addition to solar, battery storage and hydroelectric, Aemetis utilizes a Mitsubishi Chemical Zebrex ethanol water separation system which uses electricity instead of molecular sieves. McAfee says the facility is also utilizing mechanical vapor recompression that uses electrical fans to recompress steam. A series of heat exchangers helps to more efficiently provide heat and help with energy use. The theme, he says, is to change out as many systems as possible to impact the CI score.

The thing that stands out, however, is steam reuse. Mechanical vapor recompression provides the plant's main energy savings (followed by the Zebrex system). In 2018, Aemetis worked with Mitsubishi and ICM Inc. to build the largest system of its type. Already used in more than 70 alcohol production plants worldwide, the system can reduce energy consumption during biofuel production by nearly 25 percent. The continuous membrane dehydration technology separates water from ethanol for purification into fuel-quality biofuel.

To aid in the use of the solar array and associated battery storage set-up, Aemetis has also installed an Allen Bradley decision control AI-based management system for all of the energy use in the plant. Because Aemetis is surrounded by dairy operations, the facility has also invested and integrated heavily into biogas production and usage (see page 19). The California Energy Commission provided roughly $8 million in funding for some of the solar and electricity-based work.

McAfee says sound regulatory management of existing biofuel policy is virtually all that’s needed to de-risk the integration of more renewable power with ethanol production. “Decarbonization of fuels relies on enforcement of federal laws (RFS) and state law (LFCS),” he says, stressing that the risk with renewables is not in technology, financing or construction. “The risks reside in the ongoing violation of federal law by not announcing blending percentages, and not enforcing the federal gallon mandate, [allowing waivers] … [and not] increasing the usage of federal LCFS credits.”

Like McAfee in California, Peine in Kansas sees a case for renewables on many fronts. WPE has identified three components to its carbon intensity score. The first is carbon sequestration. Many entities are looking at the Oakley site as an opportunity for sequestration due to favorable geologic conditions. The second area WPE has identified for CI reduction is linked to grain (i.e., the grain coming into the plant). The team is currently working with corn suppliers to better assess each farm’s own CI score, which in turn will help WPE’s overall CI score. Part of that process also involves WPE petitioning CARB to use a CI score on a per-farm basis for its grain inputs, as opposed to a nationwide-based average score already assigned by CARB. And like Aemetis, Peine says WPE is also focusing on new operational efficiencies. To start, his team has focused on ways to reduce natural gas inputs, followed by efficiency improvements, to drive down overall demands.

“Our industry has an opportunity to really show its value,” Peine says.

Both Norrbom and Fredrickson agree that many more renewable-based technology installations will be coupled with biorefining. Fredrickson’s team has several more technologic tools in the toolbox outside of the common options like wind or solar. “There is a true solid business case behind [renewables] and it is about carbon reduction and the value it brings,” Fredrickson says.

Peine and his team are already working on new renewable based projects, and despite the cost to do so, his team is genuinely enthused for the future of ethanol in conjunction with carbon score reduction efforts. “It is really exciting to be a part of an industry that is working on this aggressively.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Contact: [email protected]