RNG Producer Making A Mark

In less than four years, Brightmark has made major inroads in the U.S. renewable natural gas market. It's successes include multiple, concurrently developed RNG projects across the the country, which include partnerships with 20-plus dairy farms.
By Anna Simet | May 07, 2020

When Brightmark Energy was founded three and a half years ago, it set out with an experienced team that intended to focus on projects that would help tackle environmental issues such as greenhouse gas and waste reduction. That ambition led to its current work in renewable plastics, and though initial assumptions were that wind and solar would constitute the bulk of the company’s work, Brightmark went in a different direction—renewable natural gas (RNG).

“When we formed the company, we really wanted to be thoughtful about what we were doing,” says Bob Powell, president and CEO. “Many of the people who were there when we founded the company had experience in renewable energy and waste projects, financing, owning, operating and engineering, but as we got further into it, we realized we wanted to be more focused on the mission, as opposed to prejudged technology solutions.”

Many of Brightmark’s employees had been involved with solar and wind projects for many years, Powell says, but the company came to realize there was opportunity in other markets that weren’t fully matured. “What we saw with RNG was potential to create projects that have negative carbon intensity—wind and solar have slightly positive carbon intensity,” he says. “We felt that this was a good, viable way to help solve some GHG issues, and that we had the expertise to help RNG grow in the states. We’re very humbled by the success we have had so far in this area, and in the plastics area.”

The success Powell refers to includes multiple concurrent RNG projects across the U.S., which include partnerships with 20-plus dairy farms in six states over the past two years.

Project Portfolio
Brightmark’s debut project came online in Sumter, South Carolina, in September 2016, at a poultry processing facility. It utilizes chicken waste to generate methane, which is used to provide power and hot water to the facility, rather than upgraded to RNG and injected into the pipeline. “That was one of the smaller applications, but it was a really good start for us,” Powell says.

In Yakima County, Washington, the Augean RNG Project will convert 150,000 gallons per day of dairy waste from up to 7,000 cows at George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy into 160,000 MMBtu of RNG annually. Brightmark’s investment in the Augean project has enabled DeRuyter to upgrade its 2007 manure collection system and digester to increase its capacity. The project also includes construction of new gas pipeline infrastructure.

The Yellowjacket Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) project in upstate New York will convert 265,000 gallons per day of dairy into 260,000 MMBtu of RNG each year. “This project will utilize waste from 15,000 dairy cows spread over five farms,” Powell says. Though the farms’ existing digesters had been producing electricity that was used onsite and sold to the grid, some of the digesters were 10-plus years old, Powell explains, and the cost of maintaining and operating began outweighing what they were generating in value.  “Digesters that have previously been used to generate electricity most often have not been designed to maximize the value of RNG,” he says. “In these types of applications, we usually spend a lot of time retrofitting so they can be optimized. And many of instances, the farmers were having to run the digesters and equipment. The problem is that most farmers don’t want that to be their business, and don’t have the time—they want to focus on dairy products—and in some cases, you end up with digesters that might not have been maintained at a quality level.”

Farmers that upgrade their digesters will gain much better economics than previously, Powell says, and without the burden  of having to run and maintain them. “If our partners are not making money or creating sustainable solutions, our partnerships won’t be sustainable,” he says.

In addition to the aforementioned, Brightmark also has active RNG pipeline projects in western Michigan, Minnehaha County in South Dakota, Okeechobee County in Florida, and in Madison, Wisconsin. And for its renewable plastics business, Brightmark has a facility under construction in Ashley, Indiana, which will divert 100,000 tons of plastic waste each year from landfills and incinerators and convert it into 18 million gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and naphtha blend stocks, as well as 5 million gallons of wax.

Focusing on Partners
While some companies tend to target specific regions for development, Brightmark is equipped with the expertise to handle varying environmental, air quality, zoning and permitting regulations, and is more focused on finding the right partners, Powell says. “There are complexities [across different regions] that people tend to trip over, but it’s one of the areas we excel in—we’re experienced in working in different locales and solving the issues. What’s important is establishing a level of trust with someone you’ll be doing business with for 10 to 20 years—do they believe in you, and do they believe that the value proposition you offer is a fair value proposition? While there are a lot of nuances in different locations, mostly the farmers just want to know you’re good people offering them a fair deal, and that they can have the confidence in you to  execute the project now, and over the next decade or two. That’s the commonality.” 

Word of mouth travels fast in small dairy communities, and good projects serve as a model for others interested in doing the same thing, Powell says. “We’re really excited about how the RNG industry is taking off,” he adds. “We really think we’re going to help solve some of the air quality concerns with methane emissions.” 

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Biomass Magazine