Verbio launches $115 million renewable natural gas, ethanol plant in Nevada; touts bigger plans

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2022

Calling the technology at a central Iowa biorefinery a game changer, corporate and elected officials marked the start of commercial production of renewable natural gas and ethanol at a $115 million central Iowa biorefinery Friday.

“This is a special day for Iowa and for the renewable fuels industry,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said at the German-owned Verbio Nevada Biorefinery, which is making renewable natural gas from corn cobs, husks and other crop residue it buys from central Iowa farmers.

The plant, occupying the site of the former DuPont cellulosic ethanol facility between Nevada and Ames on Lincolnway Highway, is expected when fully operation to make renewable natural gas that contains the energy equivalent of 19 million gallons of ethanol each year. It also will produce 60 million gallons of corn-based ethanol annually.

Reynolds said she was impressed with Verbio’s vision and innovation when she first heard about the project in 2019. She said she also was impressed with the “opportunities to continue to lead and grow an industry that is very important to Iowa.”

The state is the leading U.S. producer of ethanol and the corn that’s used to make it.

No other company in the U.S. is making renewable natural gas using farm residue at an industrial scale, said Claus Sauter, CEO of Verbio AG, the publicly traded German company that is the parent of Verbio Nevada.

“But it will not be the last,” Sauter, adding that Verbio AG plans to open new renewable natural gas facilities, potentially one each year, in the U.S. The company said in a statement it could open up to 10 plants within five years.

“We are committed to the U.S., particularly in Iowa, as evidenced with the $150 million investment we are making here. And our plans are bigger, much bigger,” Sauter said. “With the right biofuels policies in place, we believe Iowa and the U.S. have immense potential.”

Carbon dioxide byproduct also will be put to work

Sauter told a couple hundred people attending the event that the company envisions using carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the plant’s production, to eventually make synthetic natural gas and chemicals in partnership “with a big German chemical company.”

“We see CO2 as a product, not a waste. It’s a new business line,” he said, telling Reynolds the company will need “government’s help.”

Sauter said the company will buy 100,000 tons of the crop residue, known as corn stover, annually from central Iowa farmers, as well as 20 million bushels of corn to make ethanol.

Ron DeJongh, Verbio North America’s president, said the company will spend close to $1 million buying stover from about 100 area farmers.

Verbio employees, providing tours of the facility, said the stover is ground up, then pumped into massive silos that serve as anaerobic digesters. Bacteria in breaks down the plant material and biomethane rising to the top of the digesters is captured and refined. Solid digestate, pressed to reduce moisture, is the basis for a soil conditioner similar to compost that farmers can use to add nutrients to their soil.

DeJongh said distillers the digesters are fed with distillers grain left over from ethanol production. Eventually, he said, the plant will use byproducts to make fertilizers for organic crop production.

Officials said the renewable natural gas is pumped directly into an Alliant Energypipeline, which distributes it to customers in Iowa and across the country.

The utility helped the company meet renewable natural gas standards and regulations so the energy could be sold in other states, they said.

Sauter said the nation has room to expand renewable natural gas production under the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that calls for production of ethanol, biodiesel and other advanced renewable fuels. Almost all U.S. gas is blended with at least 10% ethanol.

Federal officials expected the nation by this year to be producing 16 billion gallons annually of advanced biofuel, the category under which renewable natural gas falls. But the country has met less than 4% of that goal, Sauter said.

Reynolds said that at a time when Russia’s assault on Ukraine “threatens our food and energy supply chains, restoring our energy independence has never been more important.”

Sauter said the plant has about 50 employees and will employ another 50 when it completes its second phase of construction next year.

Verbio, which fully funded the project, received about $3.9 million in tax incentives from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

The company also received state and county property tax breaks, officials said.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457. 

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