May 17, 2020

The scoop on biodiesel feedstock

4 min
Biodiesel feedstock
North Americas largest wholly-owned biodiesel manufacturing and marketing source, Renewable Energy Group, is the first biodiesel producer and marketer i...
North America’s largest wholly-owned biodiesel manufacturing and marketing source, Renewable Energy Group, is the first biodiesel producer and marketer in the United States to have developed product specifications for B100 that exceed ASTM D 6751 biodiesel specifications, regardless of feedstock.
The firm’s biodiesel manufacturing plants produce biodiesel in large volumes, and require a unique and sophisticated approach to finding the raw materials required to develop high-quality products.  In his role as vice president for supply chain management, Dave Elsenblast oversees a complex and intriguing materials procurement operation, which includes fats, oils and other triglyceride feedstocks. Dave recently sat down with Energy Digital to skim the surface of a multilayered and complex sourcing operation.
Q. What kind of materials do you source and how are they used?
A. The raw materials that we are sourcing would be vegetable oils, canola oil, and the various different types of soybean oil -- from refined and bleached soybean oil to crude soybean oil.  We purchase a lot of animal fats and used cooking oil and waste vegetable greases, and we also use inedible corn oil that comes from ethanol facilities. 
Q. How do you identify and purchase animal fats?
A.We deal with every category of animal fat and waste cooking oil that is out there.  From the beef slaughter industry, you have edible tallow, technical grade tallow, and bleached fancy tallow; we trade in all types of grades. From the pork slaughtering industry we have edible lard, which, as it sounds, is the edible fat that comes off the pork slaughter operation.  We have a product called choice white grease, which is an inedible pork fat, and a lower grade product called yellow grease.  Each one of those has a varying degree of free fatty acids and a varying degree of moisture and insolubles.
We deal with all of the major slaughter companies in the United States. We also deal with the rendering industry, where non-slaughter companies collect various raw materials from different meat cutting industries and companies that collect used restaurant grease.  They go around restaurants and collects the used cooking oil, clean it up, and then we buy that product from them.
Q. How are different oils sourced?
A. Soybean oil is produced here in the eastern and western Corn Belt.  The soybean growers sell their soybeans to local elevators or crushing plants.  We buy soybean oil from many of the large crushers in the United States, such as Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge.  They have various crush facilities that are located advantageously to our biodiesel facilities and so we monitor their selling prices on a weekly and daily basis to find the best purchase price. Canola is purchased in a similar fashion, except that the geography of canola production is farther north and into Canada.
Inedible corn oil comes from the ethanol producers, generally from the Midwest.  The inedible corn oil comes out of what is called syrup, which is in a liquid stage.  The ethanol facility will run that through a centrifuge and extract the oil out of the syrup and you're left with an oil that some biodiesel producers can convert into biodiesel. 
Every feedstock has a different unique operational yield within every category and between suppliers, because there are different yield characteristics based on the type of feedstock we’re purchasing.  We understand the different yield results between the different fats, and we understand the different yield results between the different suppliers.
Q. Can you talk about the “B” factor – the amount of biodiesel blended into a petroleum product?
A. As we sell into the distribution channel, our product gets blended in by the petroleum folks at anywhere from B2 to B20.  State mandates for biodiesel blends would be one factor that will determine what grade of biodiesel they're going to blend in.  The economics and the temperature of where they are at that time of year will impact how much they put in, as well as the intended use.  For example, underground mine operations may use a much higher percentage -- perhaps up to 100% or B100 -- to help control emissions in those areas. 
Early on, we understood that we were going to be a multi-feedstock business.  We've been the industry leader in the expansion of utilizing different feedstocks.  We were a leader in the innovation of animal fat and of inedible corn oil.  We understood that not all of our market was going to be using soybean oil.  We arbitrage between the different feedstocks that are going to deliver us the best value as we convert triglycerides into BTUs.

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Jun 12, 2021

Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins

Petri Rauhakallio
6 min
Petri Rauhakallio at Sharper Shape outlines the Digital Twins benefits for energy transmission and distribution utilities

As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones. 

So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?

The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin. 

1. Smarter Asset Planning

A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.

With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.

The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.

As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.

2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance

Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.  

The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.

3. More Efficient Vegetation Management

Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees. 

If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly. 

And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.

4. Automated powerline inspection

Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.

However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.

Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.

In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors. 

5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response

If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.

And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?

6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders

Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road. 

As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.

These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them. 


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