A major industrial area that has stood idle in the heart of Bakersfield for years is being brought back to life to refine used cooking oil, rendered animal fats, and a canola-related grain called camelina.
Torrance-based biofuel company Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc. is renovating equipment and hiring new employees to bring part of the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway into operation by the end of this year.
The plan is to start with 15,000 barrels per day – more than 25,000 gallons per hour – of renewable diesel. As a petroleum refinery, it processed nearly three times that volume until it was shut down about eight years ago by a former owner, Alon USA Energy Inc. of Dallas.
Without contractors or suppliers, around 115 employees are expected to work on site as soon as the preparations have been completed. That's about half what the refinery was doing before. In addition, most of the new activity will be confined to the southernmost part of the complex.
The new owner, who paid $ 40 million for the complex last year after receiving $ 365 million to fund the project, hopes to increase production, even if it expects to see 85 percent of that Demolish or sell refinery equipment.
A senior executive said the company is also looking into the possibility of covering part of the 400-acre property with photovoltaic solar panels to reduce the company'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 more bioenergy production that serves California's climate goals.
“This is exactly what we need to retrofit these facilities and expand our renewable fuel capabilities,” said Nick Ortiz, President and CEO of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.
As a member of the B3K Economic Development Cooperation Executive Committee, Ortiz said it had become clear that the county needs to focus on innovative technologies such as new clean burning refinery raw materials that make more competitive use of the region's industrial infrastructure and workforce.
“This is one of those bright spots that we have,” he added. “As much as we can do to use it and market it as a capability for the region, we will simply invest more (invest) in it.”
Another enthusiastic supporter is MP Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. He has penned bioenergy promotion laws, most recently including Bill 322 to instruct the California Energy Commission to prioritize incentives for converting Ag waste into biomethane. A bill he penned last year, AB 3163, called certain biofuels into question for credits for utility company renewable portfolios.
“I am thrilled that well-paid jobs in the bioenergy sector are available here in the (central) valley,” said Salas on Friday by email. “As we want to produce more renewable fuels, it is important that we invest in the innovative bioenergy and biofuel technologies that can help us turn our waste into reliable and cleaner energy. “
Noah Ver acceler, executive vice president of development and regulatory affairs for Global Clean Energy, said renewable diesel production appears to be a good fit for Kern County in several ways.
First, there is a local demand for fuel, he said: The agriculture industry in the Central Valley requires heavy use of diesel-burning tractor units, for which there is no electric alternative. Local warehousing coupled with northern and southern California trade allows trucks to be brought onto Highway 99 and Interstate 5 at any time of the day.
In addition, the project is centrally located and therefore positioned to source raw materials from processors and restaurants in Southern California, the Bay Area and even Las Vegas, Vereleration said.
Rendering facilities are a reasonable distance north and south, he noted. Camelina is expected to be drawn from the Midwest. The seeds of the harvest bear the oil; Velocity said the rest could be fed to livestock.
Vereler said the new refinery will “need the same skills that you would have in a traditional refinery”.
“Those are skills we don't have to import from the Gulf Coast. … Kern County has a lot of them,” he said. He added that some recently hired workers previously worked on site and some are children of people who used to work there.
In the past few weeks the company has hired half a dozen or more operators and now employs more than 60 people on site. Additional settings will be made as soon as the inspections are completed and the start date approaches.
DOWN TO WORK
He made a distinction between the types of long-term jobs the company creates in Bakersfield and the mostly short-term construction jobs available in solar and wind power generation.
“Our project will be feasible for the foreseeable future,” he said.
The reason so much overhaul is being done now is because the facility will handle fluids with viscosities and densities that are different from what it previously handled.
Pumps and pipes are now the focus, said Ver acceler. New heat exchangers and air coolers and a number of large cranes will be installed by late summer, he said.
For the most part, however, the company is keen to work with what is already in the refinery.
“We take all of these existing things, reconfigure them a little, but mostly make sure that the equipment has been properly designed or modified to do similar things,” he said.