A Sleeping Giant Awakens

Imperium Renewables poised to reemerge as a leader in the biodiesel, biojet industries
By Bryan Sims | September 08, 2011

To say that Imperium Renewables and its 100 MMgy biodiesel facility located on the Port of Grays Harbor in Aberdeen, Wash., is on the cusp of fading into obscurity compared to when it boisterously entered the market four years ago would be severely premature. In the past couple years, while the company struggled with unstable markets, lost contracts, layoffs, executive changes and other upsets, today’s more reliable markets are lending the company renewed enthusiasm and optimism to flourish again, says CEO John Plaza. “We’re really starting to be more bullish on the future,” Plaza tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Plaza points to his company’s ability to supply canola-based biodiesel to regional markets in Oregon, and Alberta and British Columbia, Canada—all of which have mandates in place requiring a certain percentage of diesel to be from renewable sources—as a driving factor behind Imperium’s successful run to remain profitable for much of 2010 and into 2011.

“We do a lot of export into Canada and also export on a global basis where the markets create the demand for high-quality canola biodiesel such as ours,” Plaza says.

Canola sourced in Canada is not yet an approved pathway for biodiesel production under RFS2, but Plaza notes that Imperium has been working with the U.S. EPA, the Canadian Canola Association and the Canadian government to green light it, adding that he expects a decision soon.

“It has sort of prevented us from playing in the RFS2 market because we can’t produce a RIN-qualified fuel, so really the only market we have is the export market,” Plaza says. “Luckily, the export market has been significant. Once the EPA approves Canadian biomass—which includes Canadian canola—that will give us a chance to supply that market.”

With an established distribution channel stabilized to supply those markets for its canola-based biodiesel, Imperium intends to delve into the aviation fuel market, Plaza says. He testified before the U.S. Senate Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee in August, where he announced plans for a $250 million renewable jet fuel production facility to be co-located on site with the company’s existing biodiesel facility in Grays Harbor. Plaza also advocated for the military to be allowed to sign longer-term offtake contracts for fuel, specifically biojet. Subsequent to Plaza’s subcommittee hearing, the U.S DOE, USDA and the U.S. Navy announced a $510 million, three-year expansion of the biojet market, an area to which Plaza, a former pilot, is no stranger. Plaza says that Imperium intends to become a participant in the biojet market.

“The announcement is a significant milestone for the potential growth of the industry,” Plaza says. “It will likely be another year before actual volumes of biojet fuel enter the market, but we’re going to do everything we can to be the successful bidder of that opportunity, should it arise.”

—Bryan Sims

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