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Marathon converts Dickinson Refinery to renewable diesel plant; wind turbines to power site

Published: May 26 2021
Marathon converts Dickinson Refinery to renewable diesel plant; wind turbines to power site - Photo
Written by: Amy R. Sisk

Marathon Petroleum has converted its Dickinson Refinery into a plant that turns soybean and corn oil into renewable diesel, and soon the facility will run in part on wind power.

Plans to convert the refinery west of Dickinson have been in the works for years after it opened in 2015 and struggled financially. The facility stopped processing oil in April 2020. The transition took place a few months earlier than planned after the coronavirus pandemic hit and caused demand to fall for motor fuels made at the refinery, said Ray Brooks, Marathon’s executive vice president of refining.

“The whole beauty of this thing being located where it is in North Dakota is that the feedstock is in that area,” he said, referring to abundant soybean and corn production in the state. “A lot of the feedstock is brought in from rail cars from facilities, from farms, essentially, in that general area."

Heat and hydrogen are used to process soybean and corn oil into renewable diesel. The fuel differs from biodiesel, which usually made from vegetable oils but is blended into petroleum diesel for use in certain vehicles. Biodiesel can gel up inside a vehicle when the temperature drops in winter, so it tends to make up a smaller fraction of the fuel into which it’s blended, Brooks said.

Renewable diesel, on the other hand, flows well even when it’s cold and can be used alone in diesel engines, though it too is often blended.

The Dickinson plant began producing renewable diesel late last year and has ramped up to its full capacity in recent weeks. It has the ability to produce 12,000 barrels per day of the biofuel.

California is the primary consumer of renewable diesel in the United States, Brooks said. To get its oil there, Marathon is shipping fuel from the Dickinson facility to the West Coast via train. It’s then loaded onto ships that take it south.

Marathon isn’t the only company producing biofuels in North Dakota to eye California markets. California has established a low-carbon fuel standard, which is a series of policies designed to decrease the carbon intensity of the state’s transportation fuels to improve air quality and reduce dependency on petroleum, according to the state’s Air Resources Board.

Several ethanol plants in North Dakota are developing systems to capture the carbon dioxide they produce and bury the emissions underground, which makes their fuel more attractive to customers in states such as California.

Brooks estimated at least 100 people are employed at the Dickinson plant, and more will work at the site when construction begins on five wind turbines slated to tie into the facility's power system next year. 

The turbines will help to power the plant whenever the wind blows more than 7 mph. The facility will receive the rest of its power through the electric grid.

The turbines each will have a 2.35-megawatt capacity, which means they will be a similar size to others that make up utility-scale wind farms across North Dakota. One Energy is putting up the turbines to the north and east of the facility. The project is in the process of securing state and local permits.

One Energy CEO Jereme Kent said industrial facilities are increasingly turning to renewable power for several reasons: it’s cheap, contracts can lock in a flat power supply cost for years, and renewable power can substantially reduce sites' carbon footprints.

“You can make a good sustainability decision that is also a profitable decision that is also a de-risking decision,” he said.

“Energy is such a large portion of their cost that being able to take that risk or a large portion of that risk off the table is a very attractive proposition to a lot of industrial facilities.”

One Energy has a contract to supply power to Marathon's Dickinson plant for 20 years.

Brooks said Marathon seeks to “make the lowest carbon renewable diesel product out there” at its Dickinson facility.

“One way we can do that is by using renewable electricity to manufacture it,” he said.

Marathon and other companies whose business is substantially in the petroleum industry are increasingly setting goals to reduce their carbon footprints. Marathon has an objective to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions intensity 30% below 2014 levels by 2030. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide contribute to climate change.

Meanwhile, interest in One Energy’s wind projects is booming.

“We’ve got more work booked in the next 18 months than in the last eight years,” Kent said. “We see a lot of companies embracing this.”

Marathon and One Energy both are headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, and they've worked together on a project involving wind power in the past, Kent said.

One Energy will offer a scholarship program to local students pursuing degrees in STEM fields when its project goes up near Dickinson. Each year, five students will receive a $5,000 scholarship and have their name printed on one of the five wind turbines.

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