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Bioenergy interest heats up in Kern County

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The former Big West of California refinery on Rosedale Highway is expected to partially reopen in 2022 as a biodiesel plant.

Kern County business developers have seen a surge of interest lately from companies looking to build waste-to-energy projects that could create hundreds if not thousands of new local jobs in producing fuels that cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Four new bioenergy proposals came to the attention of the Kern Economic Development Corp. in the last half of 2020, joining four other prospects under active consideration. Most of the projects would employ more than 100 workers. One would dwarf the others with as many as 1,390 jobs across 100 to 200 acres.

Bioenergy has attracted substantial local investment in recent years as state lawmakers offer subsidies and favorable policies to promote big spending on infrastructure necessary to convert food waste, ag trimmings, dairy manure and even dead forest trees into cleaner-burning fuel whose environmental benefits can add up to be carbon negative.

KEDC Vice President of Business Development Melinda Brown said the projects crossing her desk lately represent a variety of "green energy" technologies inspired by state mandates. Together, she said, they amount to a noticeable shift in interest in local manufacturing and industrial property.

"They're telling me this is all new industries" under development, she said Monday.

State legislation in 2016 targeted reductions in methane and other short-lived pollutants by forcing local jurisdictions to cut the amount of organic material they collectively send landfills by three-quarters. The best way to do that depends on the feedstock.

Food and food-processing waste can be treated as dairy waste increasingly is, by fermenting it and refining the gas it produces into an easily stored fuel.

Because that doesn't work as well with waste such as vineyard prunings and almond hulls, another approach is to super-heat dry, fibrous, feedstock. That produces an energy-dense fuel and biochar, which can then be buried, or sequestered, to achieve carbon-reduction gains. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has estimated this technology could become a central tool for meeting California's aggressive climate-change goals.

The executive director of the Bioenergy Association of California, Julia Levin, said Kern is "the perfect place for it," not only because of the county's large supply of ag waste but also its inventory of elected and appointed government officials who recognize the industry's benefits, value and the opportunity it presents.

Some environmental groups have actively opposed biofuels, in part because they usually entail emitting at least some pollution and older production techniques release relatively high levels of particulate matter. Many climate-change activists are pushing for an end to internal combustion altogether.

Levin said new technologies are much cleaner and that the alternative in much of the Central Valley is open burning.

"You're going to see a lot of growth in Kern County (bioenergy), but I think we're going to see a lot of growth statewide," said Levin. She added that significant government investment may yet be needed to meet California's bioenergy potential.

The California Energy Commission said it has invested more than $27 million since 2007 in research and development in renewable natural gas, a common form of bioenergy that is basically methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. The commission said it has given an additional $77 million in taxpayer money to biomethane projects.

A number of dairies in Kern County have worked with Visalia-based California Bioenergy LLC to turn several thousand cows' manure into biomethane. And on Millux Road, Denver-based Crimson Renewable Energy LLC has a refining plant making biodiesel entirely from waste such as used cooking oil.

Last year Torrance-based Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc. bought the former, 67,000-barrel-per-day refinery on Rosedale Highway and announced a $365 million project to reopen the plant by early 2022 with about 100 employees producing 10,000 barrels per day of biodiesel from cooking oil. It said the refinery will later make the product from a ground-cover plant called camelina.

The head of 155-employee Kern Oil & Refining Co., which makes renewable diesel and other fuels at its 26,000-barrel-per-day refinery near Lamont, said leveraging conventional fuel production with market knowledge has helped the company emerge as a leader in renewable fuel production.

President and CEO Jennifer Haley said she encourages policymakers to cultivate a wide-ranging energy portfolio in the state. By attracting public and private investment, she said, Kern can demonstrate that "we can both address climate change and set the table for perpetual regional economic success."

Editor's note: This story has been revised to clarify the state's landfill-diversion goal is collective, not based on jurisdictions' individual totals.