REG: Increasing capacity
Volume to go up from 12 million gallons annually to 30 million
RALSTON — It was a little more than a year ago, Nov. 1, 2016, when Renewable Energy Group announced its plans for an expansion at their biorefinery in Ralston.
More than 15 months and $24 million dollars later, the project is on track to be finished and the plant should be back to producing biodiesel on Feb. 24, according to Myron Danzer, general manager of REG in Ralston.
Previously, REG’s Ralston facility had an annual production capacity of 12 million gallons, but will now have an annual nameplate production capacity of 30 million gallons.
According to REG, when the previous 12 million-gallon continuous flow biorefinery was built in 2001, REG was a division of West Central Cooperative, which is now now Landus Cooperative.
At that time, the plant was the largest biodiesel refinery in America. Over time, REG grew into an independent company and became North America’s largest biomass-based diesel producer.
Danzer said the first plant was started to add value of the soybean oil that came from the soybean crush plant at West Central.
The crush plant, SoyPlus, is owned and operated by Landus Cooperative.
“We continue to do that today,” said Danzer. “We have a good working relationship with Landus Cooperative. They supply all of the oil for this plant and we still have that same primary goal — especially for this plant — to add value of the soybean oil that comes out of the plant.”
The first plant, Danzer said, was a small batch plant built that produced close to 1 million gallons a year.
“The beginning of the time for me and biodiesel and the company was in 1998,” he said. “We made methyl esters and used those for making cleaning products, spray adjuvants for crop oil and things like that.”
“We had a whole line of products. We made them from the batch plant.”
It was after that initial growth that they came up with the plans to build a 12 million-gallon plant in 2002, according to Danzer, who said it was big step, as that was twice the capacity of the sales of biodiesel made throughout the United States that year.
“So at that time, the West Central board made the decision that we should build a 12 million gallon plant, and that was a large, large plant when it came to biodiesel,” he said. “It was a pretty big leap of faith.”
Throughout the years, the Ralston plant has been used for research and development projects.
“It was used a lot as an R&D plant because it was the original and a lot of the plants we built after it are modeled after the Ralston plant,” Danzer said. “Also, some of the R&D that came out of this plant helped to make improvements to the other facilities we built, and a lot of those improvements came back to building the expansion.”
“We kind of went full circle on the technology.”
Danzer said the 12 million-gallon plant ran until November 2017, when it was shut down for the “de-bottlenecking” process to be able to incorporate it into the expansion.
The goal of the new expansion is to match the capacity of the SoyPlus plant, which also recently underwent an expansion.
“We will take all of the oil they produce,” said Danzer. “That’s a great opportunity for REG because that oil doesn’t have to be transported. There’s a value in not transporting, and that saves dollars and helps both companies. One doesn’t have to ship and one doesn’t have to pay for shipping.”
In addition to the capacity expansion, the project will include logistics improvements and other site enhancements.
“As we restructure the whole facility, it’s geared around, of course, adding capacity,” Danzer said, “but it’s also doing things like providing a new load out system that will be faster for our customers and that also gives a better working environment for our employees, because we were using existing load outs that were actually shared with Landus.”
He added increased capacity with the load outs and safety features are also benefits of the redesigned system.
“There are safety systems built in so we can’t overflow a truck. We can’t spill,” he said. “One of our main targets is to have no spills or leaks. We call it ‘keeping it in the pipe’ as one of our safety models.”
The expansion brings new office facilities, a break room and a state-of-the-art control room.
The control room is unique due to the safety requirements that have been built in to ensure the safety of the operators. Safety was also a concern in other areas of the plant, with a storm shelter built in the new office near the load out area and a new fire system that features foam.
“We use foam because we learned that foam will put out a fire better than just a sprinkler system in our process,” Danzer said. “When it comes down to safety and safety devices, it’s been a million dollars to protect this plant.”
The new expansion brings more than just added capacity and enhancements to REG.
Plant Manager Bill Ritchie said he is excited to add to the plant’s workforce.
“I think one of the highlights of this expansion, for me, is we are able to add seven quality good paying jobs,” he said. “Adding employees is a good thing.”
This will bring the staff in Ralston to 25 employees that, together, keep the plant running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ritchie said there was a significant amount of workforce brought in to help build the expansion as well, adding the construction team added 70 to 80 additional construction jobs onsite at any given time.
“And those were companies from all over the area,” he said. “Most of them Iowa companies.”
Once the newly-expanded REG plant in Ralston is back in operation, it will help to increase REG’s cumulative nameplate capacity from its 11 active biomass-based diesel plants across the U.S. to 470 million gallons annually.
“We will bring more biodiesel gallons to market,” said Danzer. “We have a lot of local customers that have been with us since day one when we started producing biodiesel out this plant.”
He added they also sell to several other Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota companies, and they anticipate those sales will continue.