A major industrial property that has sat idle for years in the heart of Bakersfield is coming back to life to refine used cooking oil, rendered animal fats and a canola-related grain called camelina.
Torrance-based biofuels company Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc. is refurbishing equipment and ramping up hiring so by the end of this year it can fire up part of the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway.
The plan is to start at 15,000 barrels per day — more than 25,000 gallons per hour — of renewable diesel. As a petroleum refinery it processed almost three times that volume until it was shut down about eight years ago by a former owner, Dallas-based Alon USA Energy Inc.
Not including contractors or vendors, about 115 employees are expected to work on the site once preparations are complete. That's roughly half what the refinery employed previously. Also, most of the new activity will be limited to the southernmost portion of the complex.
But the new owner, having paid $40 million for the complex last year after securing $365 million in financing for the project, hopes to boost production even as it expects to demolish or sell off some 85 percent of the refinery's equipment.
A senior executive said the company's also looking at the feasibility of covering part of the more than 400-acre property with photovoltaic solar panels that would help reduce the operation's carbon footprint.
Local observers say Global Clean Energy's efforts point to a bright future for Kern County's economic diversification and transition to greater production of bioenergy serving California's climate goals.
"This is exactly what we need, basically retooling these facilities to expand our capabilities in renewable fuels," said Nick Ortiz, president and CEO of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.
As an executive committee member of the B3K economic development collaboration, Ortiz said it has become clear the county needs to focus on innovative technologies, such as new, cleaner-burning refinery feedstocks, that make more competitive use of the area's industrial infrastructure and workforce.
"This is one of those bright spots that we have," he added. "As much as we can (do) to leverage it and market it as a capability for the region, we're just going to draw more (investments) in."
Another enthusiastic supporter is Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. He has written legislation promoting bioenergy, most recently including Assembly Bill 322, which would direct the California Energy Commission to prioritize incentives for converting ag waste into biomethane. A bill he authored last year that was signed into law, AB 3163, made certain biofuels eligible for utilities' renewable-portfolio credits.
“I am thrilled that good-paying jobs in the bioenergy sector are becoming available, right here in the (Central) Valley," Salas said by email Friday. "As we look to produce more renewable fuels, it is vital that we invest in the innovative technologies of bioenergy and biofuels that can help us turn our waste into reliable and cleaner energy.”
Global Clean Energy's executive vice president of development and regulatory affairs, Noah Verleun, said renewable diesel production seems to fit nicely with Kern County in several respects.
First there's local demand for fuel, he said: The Central Valley's agricultural industry requires heavy use of diesel-combusting tractor-trailers for which no electric alternative exists. Plus, local warehousing combined with commerce between Northern and Southern California puts trucks on Highway 99 and Interstate 5 at all hours of the day.
What's more, the project is centrally located and therefore positioned to draw feedstock from processing plants and restaurants in Southern California, the Bay Area and even Las Vegas, Verleun said.
Rendering plants are located a reasonable distance north and south, he noted. Camelina is expected to be hauled from the Midwest. The crop's seeds carry the oil; Verleun said the rest can be fed to livestock.
Verleun said the new refinery will need "the same skills that you have in a traditional refinery."
"Those are skills that we don't need to import from the Gulf Coast. … Kern County has a ton of it," he said. He added that some recent hires worked previously at the site, and some are children of people who used to work there.
In the last couple of weeks the company has hired half a dozen or more operators and now employs more than 60 people at the site. Additional hiring will be done once inspections are complete and the launch date nears.
DOWN TO WORK
He drew a distinction between the sort of long-term jobs the company is creating in Bakersfield and the mostly short-term construction jobs available in solar and wind power generation.
"Our project will be viable for the foreseeable future," he said.
The reason so much reconditioning work is happening now is that the plant will be handling liquids with viscosities and densities different from what it used to process.
Pumps and pipes are the focus now, Verleun said. New heat exchangers and air coolers will be installed by late summer, along with a number of large cranes, he said.
For the most part, however, the company aims to work with what's already at the refinery.
"We're taking all of this existing stuff, reconfiguring it a little bit but mostly making sure the equipment is properly designed or has been properly modified to do a similar kind of thing," he said.