Proposed renewable energy, fertilizer facility for Waelder gets county support


A proposed facility in Waelder that would process agricultural waste into renewable fuels and natural fertilizer is getting a green thumbs up from the Gonzales County Commissioners Court after those involved gave a presentation Monday, Feb. 26.

“This is a fantastic project for the county, for the city of Waelder, and also for the state of Texas,” said Robert Crouch of Fort Worth-based CowPower Bio Energy to commissioners.

The partnership between Oberon Fuels, DVO Renewables, CowPower BioEnergy and Cal Maine Foods would see the construction of an anaerobic digester — similar to ones seen in dairies in the Midwest — on land south of the Cal-Maine Foods Complex No. 2 near Interstate 10 at County Road 422.

The site would process poultry waste streams not only from the two Cal Maine sites in Waelder, but from six other Cal-Maine sites nearby, said Jeffrey Wright, vice president of product development for Oberon Fuels. Cal-Maine is currently the largest producer and distributor of shell eggs in the United States.

Wright explained an anaerobic digester as “basically the industrial version of what happens in inside of dairy cows.”

“So when you think about a dairy cow, it eats a bunch of grass and hay and a dairy cow has four chambers of its stomach and each one has different processes to break down what it's eating,” Wright said. “When a cow is eating some grass, what comes out of the back of a cow? Two things happen — one is a gas comes out, and some solids come out. We take that gas and we harness that and we take that through our process at Oberon through a couple of different stages and it creates different kinds of renewable fuels. The solids that come out of the backside of a cow — that's what we take, and we use it as fertilizer.”

Wright said his company has been working with Cal Maine for several years to determine “what their waste streams are and how we can help them to clean up some manure that's coming out of their processes.”

Wright said the gas generated through the DVO Renewables anaerobic digester is used to create fuels onsite for Oberon Energy and will be either sent out on large trucks or put on train and shipped by rail to different sites.

Among the products created by Oberon are renewable dimethyl ether, or rDME, which gets blended with liquid propane gas.

“It's very similar to propane and it blends with propane,” Wright said. “It's a drop in fuel for the propane industry to try and help decarbonize their industry a bit. We also make other products like renewable (green) methanol, which a lot of companies use as backup fuel for power generation in Texas. It’s also being used in marine fuel for the shipping industry as they are looking to replace some of those dirtier fuels with something a bit more responsible.”

The organic byproduct is then turned into different fertilizer products, with some bagged and sold in local stores, while some is sold in bulk for industrial purposes.

“It's a pretty in-demand product where people are looking for more organic fertilizers as opposed to the ones that are made from other kinds of fossil fuels or imported,” Wright said. “Everything is going to be made in the United States with United States technology, United States products, United States components and making products to be sold here in the United States.”

Crouch said one of the greatest benefits of the anaerobic process is the creation of clean water in the Cal-Maine lagoons as well as odor reduction.

“The state of Texas is looking at this project as odor control,” Crouch said. “What goes into our digester comes out cleaner, so we’re returning clean water and everything gets circulated in a closed circuit. Over time, we’re looking at about a five to eight year period, those lagoons that are currently placed out there will be clean. Within a couple years from now, there’ll be no noticeable odor.”

Wright said he expects there will be roughly 25-40 employees at the Waelder facility, which includes machine operators and truck drivers. During the construction phase, there are expected to be 200-250 jobs in all specialities during a period of about 18-24 months.

Crouch said the project is currently in engineering and could be bid as soon as April or May and “we’d like to break ground this fall.”

“We're going to spend close to $200 million on the project,” Crouch said. “There's a bond program that is through the state of Texas. We're getting some federal funding from the state of Texas and it will need to be approved by the county, but the county has no liability whatsoever.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Donnie Brzozowski gave the project his blessing and asked the court to vote to show its support for the facility, which it did unanimously.