Nearly 15 years ago, before he became CEO of UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center, Charlie Gorecki worked on carbon capture systems with an eye on a specific North Dakota industrial facility where he believed carbon dioxide could be extracted and safely stored underground.
The idea was to remove CO2 during the ethanol production process and pump it into an underground geologic formation where millions of tons could be stored, thus reducing the carbon footprint of the ethanol plant and its product.
Gorecki thought the Red Trail Energy ethanol plant near Richardton, N.D., and the geology beneath it represented the ideal opportunity to demonstrate the technology’s promise.
“When the facility was built in 2007, we didn’t have a relationship with Red Trail Energy, but with the plant location, the potential was all there,” he said. “The geology made it ideal for carbon capture and storage (CCS).”
Gorecki recalled a 2012 trip to Montana with an EERC colleague. He wanted to get an early start on their return trip to Grand Forks in time for them to see the sunrise over the Richardton facility.
“I told him, one day, we will have a project here,” Gorecki recalled. “It’s low-hanging fruit. It’s in one of the most commercially viable locations for CCS.”
When RTE began to exploring the possibility for CCS in 2016, the North Dakota Industrial Commission steered the company toward the EERC.
“When they called me, we knew how much CO2 they produced every year, where they could store it and the depth of the storage,” Gorecki remembered. “It probably surprised them a little bit, but we knew right away that CCS at their site was achievable.”
A long time coming
This summer, RTE announced that the CCS project at its Richardton ethanol production facility had begun commercial operations. It was a long time coming for Gorecki, who joined the EERC in 2007 to work on CCS, as well as other energy, engineering and environmental research projects.
“The significance of implementing this project cannot be overstated,” said Gerald Bachmeier, RTE CEO. “From the beginning we wanted to set Red Trail Energy apart from other ethanol plants, and this puts us ahead of the curve in terms of lowering the carbon intensity of our ethanol.”
The project not only enables RTE to be better stewards of the environment, but also places more value on its ethanol in the clean fuels market because of its lower carbon footprint. For example, it opens RTE ethanol to markets in California and other states with low-carbon fuels standards.
The plant produces 180,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, created during the fermentation process of ethanol production. However, RTE is now capturing 100% of these CO2 emissions and injecting at a rate of 500 metric tons per day into the Broom Creek Formation more than a mile beneath the surface. The CO2 is compressed into a liquid state before being injected underground for permanent geologic storage.
“I’m feeling really good about it, professionally and personally,” Gorecki said. “My role at the EERC has changed, but my technical work here has been in CO2 storage.
“There are many others at EERC who went down the same path and worked on this project,” he continued. “To see it go all the way to commercial deployment after decades of work, it’s here now and we’re seeing it work in a big way.”
Gorecki noted that commercial success at RTE’s Richardton plant is a boost to the other larger CCS projects on which the EERC is currently working, including Project Tundra with Minnkota Power Cooperative and projects with Summit Carbon Solutions, Rainbow Energy and Basin Electric Power Cooperative.
“With all these major CO2 sources, we’ll be capturing and storing carbon dioxide in perpetuity – safely and permanently,” Gorecki explained. “It’s quite rewarding and satisfying.”
Another CCS first
Another notable achievement is that RTE’s CCS project is the first in North Dakota allowed under state primacy, which enables the state to regulate the permitting of CO2 injection wells. As part of the permit approval process, RTE worked with the EERC to demonstrate that the Broom Creek Formation had the necessary characteristics needed for CO2 storage.
Once the federal government issued carbon storage regulations, North Dakota became the first state in the nation to apply for primacy – the right to regulate injection wells in the state.
“We had to prove that our rules were as rigorous as the federal government’s before they’d give North Dakota that right,” said Gorecki, who commended state government leaders and North Dakota’s congressional delegation for their efforts. “They have been fantastic partners.”
Bachmeier credited the EERC for its role in making CCS at RTE’s Richardton ethanol plant.
“We are especially grateful to the Energy & Environmental Research Center for their dedication to understanding North Dakota’s geologic storage potential,” he said. “Without them, this wouldn’t be possible.”