The New Imperium: A major player in Biodiesel 1.5 aims for Biofuels 2.0

August 3, 2010 |

The 100 Mgy Imperium Renewables facility in Grays Harbor, Washington

Back in 2008 the death watch began on Imperium Renewables.

Though its 100 Mgy multi-feedstock plant in Grays Harbor was, at the time, the largest and most modern biodiesel facility in the US, the company lost its CEO, withdrew a planned IPO, and was forced to cancel a potentially lucrative Hawaiian development project that would have supplied biodiesel to Hawaiian Electric (HECO).

By August 2008, Royal Caribbean had pulled out of an 18 million gallon annual contract and sold off its investment in the plant, and even the city of Seattle canceled a planned biodiesel contract, citing the rising cost of biodiesel fuel.

Company founder John Plaza, late of Seattle Biofuels, stepped back in as CEO as biodiesel plants began to shutter all across the country in the face of static fuel prices, rising feedstock prices (especially for soy), and ultimately the loss (or near-loss) of a precious $1.00 per gallons biodiesel tax credit that had helped subsidize the cost of biodiesel when it began to exceed the cost of diesel.

2008: How Low Could it Go?

As if the conditions for biodiesel weren’t bad enough across the country, the mood in Seattle was perhaps even more sour. Even downstream alternative fuels marketer Propel Biofuels re-established its corporate HQ in California as individual protesters began to surface outside of biodiesel stations, and local eco-publishers like Grist began to run increasingly negative articles about the bio side of the alternative energy movement.

The producers of the “Fields of Fuel” documentary, which won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and a standing ovation from the alt-film crowd for its vision of a crop-based solution to global energy woes, hastily re-named itself “FUEL” and took on a more algae-centric view.

The resurrection of a biodiesel giant

Imperium CEO John Plaza

“I’m not dead yet,” proclaims a decidedly uncooperative corpse in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and as with Mark Twain, reports of Imperium’s impending demise were somewhat exaggerated.

Today, what was expected to become one of the first major casualties of the biodiesel crisis of 2008-10 has emerged as one of its leading survivors, and John Plaza, then as now, remains one of the biofuels industries most outspoken and astute observers.

“Relative to the industry this year, we have avoided layoffs, and we’re enjoying our niche market – serving the Canadian marketplace,” Plaza says. “There’s additional demand because of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in BC. Our customers have come to recognize that we produce the lowest cost, highest carbon reduction fuel.”

As far as prospects in the US, Plaza is sanguine. “There’s been a lengthy delay in any impact from the launch of RFS2. We’re seen more RIN trading than demand for fuel from obligated parties, so far. They are buying RINs from a huge backlog available.”

Nevertheless, Imperium is looking up these days, rather than being hunkered down. “We’re pretty bullish for demand for Imperium’s fuel. We’re not producing on a continuous basis, but we have been producing on monthly campaign basis within 24 hours of receiving oil. At many points we are at or near 100 percent capacity, and for the first quarter we were overall at near half our capacity.”

The tax credit – never say die

“The tax credit still has some legs,” Plaza contends. “There’s a discourse this week around the extenders package, and we’ll have one more chance after Labor Day. I’m 55 percent optimistic, 45 pessimistic.”

“But we have to see changes. What the industry needs is a two-fold support, a mandated floor, and incentives with tax policy to get the outcomes we’re trying for. That’s where a Low Carbon Fuel Standard comes in, with a focus on a reduction in carbon emissions, that would reward the best behavior.”

The ethanol tax situation

“The frustrating part of the debate,” Plaza adds, “is that we’ve been subsidizing corn since I’ve been alive. Ethanol came about because of excess corn. The goals were right – rural development, price stabilization, but the policy drivers were wrong, and gave us this monoculture producing excess cheap food which was primarily used for cheap feed.”

Corn support going away? “Absolutely not, I don’t see them dismantling the whole system. And frankly, if ethanol policy [inadvertently] creates a few rich farmers in the Midwest, so what? I’d much rather have rich farmer than a rich Chavez.”


“The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is the biggest issue,” Plaza comments. “We need sustainability criteria, and we need to understand what we are truly measuring against. We’d have to have a frame of reference that looks at the marginal production of fossil fuels, which we obtain from Canadian tar sands, and we need a fair standard based on fair data. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels is developing some baseline assumptions, and will measure the inputs and have it audited. Their approach is to have an average for all of biodiesel, and then if you want to get an individual score for a facility, you can pursue that.”

“The California Air Resources Board (CARB) got it all wrong. It’s a complete and utter disaster, with utopian requirements to meet standards that will just kill off first generation fuels in California, and you never get to the second generation.”

[Editor’s note. No new commercial-scale or demonstration-scale advanced biofuels project has been announced in California since the completion of the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard.]

“RSB needs to be taken seriously, by the Europeans, the obligated parties, and needs to be a valid organization. It does feel at times like middle school kids finding out how to get along, but when the European Biodiesel Board and eBIO pulled out of RSB, it was a petty and foolish move by some petty and foolish guys.”

Biodiesel consolidation

Biodiesel has been undergoing some consolidation in recent months, primarily with REG on the move, acquiring new capacity. Imperium has stayed away.

“There are very few facilities we like, with the large scale, high quality, and logistics similar to what we have,” Plaza responded, when asked about consolidation opportunities. “For us, consolidation is not best strategy for our shareholders. Our focus has always been on innovation and market opportunity, based on most efficient and highest value. We try to be differentiated enough to be biodiesel 1.5, with, for example, our emphasis on a multi-feedstock approach.”

Imperium’s own expansion plans

In the Digest, we have been extensively covering in recent months the opportunities for expansion based on existing first-generation capacity in the ethanol side of the market, with a special reports on biobutanol as well as covering cellulosic biofuels bolt-on capacity such as POET is building in Emmetsburg, IA with Project LIBERTY.

But what about the other side of the equation, with biodiesel? What opportunities are there for similar expansion, using the existing capacity of biodiesel facilities, their feedstocks acquisition logistics, rail lines, storage facilities, and industry knowledge?

“We like drop-in replacement fuels,” said Plaza, “that use our existing feedstock and agricultural waste. We see real opportunities with hydrocarbon replacement in the distillate markets, and we are focused on what we see as tremendous opportunities with aviation and military markets. It’s so much about feedstock, and we feel that we have the existing ag wastes, and forest resources, and we have the knowledge in how to efficiently invest in technology.

“We’ve been doing more working than talking, but what we’re working on is a next generation, integrated biorefinery that makes 12 products, inclusive of jet fuel and high value chemicals. [At Grays Harbor], we’ve got the state of art biofuel facility, plenty of land around it. We’re focused on building right at home for now. We like that market.”

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