IREC brings flexibility to biodiesel production

By Michael Shirek | March 15, 2007
When Independence Renewable Energy Corp. (IREC) produced the first biodiesel at its Claiborne, Ala., plant March 5, it was just another step in the company's plans to bring the renewable fuel to the southeastern United States.

The Claiborne plant will produce 40 MMgy when running at capacity later this year, nearly doubling biodiesel production in the Southeast. However, that's just one of several important features of the new facility.

The March 5 start-up of the plant began biodiesel production from one of two 20 MMgy production lines. The second line is expected to be operational in May. IREC Executive Vice President and General Manager Greg Martin said having two separate production lines has some clear advantages, including the ability to produce biodiesel from two different feedstocks at the same time. It also means the company can perform scheduled maintenance with no interruption of supply.

Now that production has begun, IREC will look to tackle the challenges of marketing its product in the Southeast. "The southeastern states are for the most part beginning their development of the biodiesel market," Martin said. "There are relatively few distributors who have made the commitment to the product at this point, but that has been largely because biodiesel has been unavailable in sufficient quantities to establish reliable supply."

Martin said one reason for the lack of supply is the current market conditions appear to be cost prohibitive to building a new facility. A new 40 MMgy biodiesel plant will only put more upward pressure on local vegetable oil prices, but Martin said being able to concurrently produce fuel from two different feedstocks will help mitigate rising prices.

"There is no question that the fuel sector demand for soy oil has led to increased prices, although the current high price levels appear to be the result of speculation and not increased demand," Martin said. "Whether the soy oil supply will eventually be outstripped by biodiesel demand remains to be seen, but it is important to remember that other oils-like corn oil, cottonseed oil and sunflower oil-can all be used as feedstocks to make quality biodiesel. Part of our strategy in building a two-line plant was to have the flexibility to work with different feedstocks."

With its Claiborne biodiesel plant, IREC has staked its claim to what Martin hopes will be a bright future for the renewable fuel. "As with any new product there must be a marketing effort that will educate users about the product and its benefits, and that will develop as more distributors take advantage of increased availability," he said. "Even with the best marketing efforts, the fledgling biodiesel industry will struggle to survive the volatility of the fuel and vegetable oil price cycles without mandates such as the national Renewable Fuels Standard program and domestic production incentives such as the blender's tax credit.

"Considering the objective of decreasing dependence on foreign energy, however, such programs must be designed exclusively for the development of the U.S. infrastructure."

IREC's Claiborne biodiesel plant was designed and built by Parsons and Whittemore, a privately held company based in Rye Brook, N.Y., which owns IREC and the adjacent Alabama River and Alabama Pine pulp mills at the Claiborne site.

Michael Shirek is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 746-8385.

Posted: 10:53 a.m. CDT Monday, March 19, 2007
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