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Watch for ADM to pioneer biofuels, more carbon capture projects

The food and commodities giant disclosed its new goals in late March. Here are some options it's studying to push forward.

An ADM carbon storage facility

Although decarbonization of industrial processes remains a big technical challenge, food processing and commodities giant Archer Daniels Midland recently adopted new commitments to cut its absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2035 — with additional carbon sequestration projects and changes to its transportation fleet figuring largely in that strategy.

ADM also has pledged to decrease energy intensity by 15 percent over the same timeframe.

"Our new goals are ambitious yet achievable," said ADM chairman and CEO Juan Luciano, in a statement when they were revealed in late March. "The greenhouse gas emissions we’ll save will be the equivalent of those from charging every single smartphone on the planet 250 times."

The new commitments, the culmination of a 1.5-year planning process, aren’t officially science-based targets but they are "more aggressive" than the 2 degrees Celsius reduction scenarios suggested by the Paris Agreement, according to ADM’s chief sustainability officer, Alison Taylor.

The new commitments do not yet cover Scope 3 emissions, although that it is a forthcoming priority for the company, she said.

We hope in this trajectory of 15 years there will be technologies that come online that we don’t even know about today.

ADM’s new board-level sustainability and corporate responsibility committee — as well as the whole executive council — played a role in setting the new goals, she said.

A feasibility study conducted by consulting and engineering firm WSP Global summarizes the best courses of action — now and over the next 15 years — that are most viable. "It gives me faith that this will be taken seriously," Taylor told GreenBiz shortly after the new strategy was revealed.

ADM’s list of potential options (as identified by that study) is comprehensive and includes many measures you’d expect for near-term improvement such as renewable energy procurement, investments (although limited) in on-site generation technology including solar, wind, nuclear and battery storage and ongoing energy "treasure hunts" for identifying energy efficiency and reduction opportunities.

An ADM soy plantation

Flipping the switch

Another major focus will be "fuel switching," both for its industrial facilities and transportation fleet. This is a daunting task: ADM, which has about 40,000 employees in 200 countries, operates more than 330 food and ingredient manufacturing facilities worldwide. It owns more than 1,800 barges, 12,000 rail cars, 360 trucks, 1,200 trailers, 100 boats and 10 oceangoing vessels. Its leased fleet is just as massive.

According to the WSP assessment, about 46 percent of ADM’s energy consumption in 2018 (28.6 million MWh) was attributable to coal and 33 percent (20.7 million MWh) came from natural gas. As of that time, about 8 percent (5.2 million MWh) came from biogenic sources such as biodiesel, ethanol, biogas and biomass — a percent you can expect to increase as ADM works toward its new reduction goals.

And ADM is exploring all of its options including biomass, although that would require capital expenditures and the construction of substantial storage facilities to handle the feedstock. If ADM transitioned its industrial energy loads entirely to biomass, it would require more than 500 trucks daily of fuel, according to the study.

It’s more likely, instead, that the company will opt for multiple options that also include biogas, renewable natural gas and — potentially in the future — hydrogen.

"We hope in this trajectory of 15 years there will be technologies that come online that we don’t even know about today," Taylor said.

To see our company looking at the future, this was rewarding for employees.

ADM is already testing emerging technologies within its transportation fleet. In late February, it announced a plan to outfit five trucks with a fuel system from Optimus Technologies that allows conventional engines to run on 100 percent biodiesel. They’ll be part of a year-long pilot: Each vehicle will travel an estimated 160,000 to 180,000 miles, with the technology expected to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 500,000 pounds on each truck.

For perspective, that’s a reduction of about 80 percent over traditional diesel.

The fuel itself will come from an ADM refinery in Jefferson, Missouri. Indeed, it’s worth noting that ADM is still one of the largest biodiesel and biofuels producers in the world. It stands to benefit from that sort of transition.

An early adopter of industrial carbon capture

When it comes to removing existing atmospheric carbon, ADM is digging into emerging carbon capture and sequestration solutions. It is already operating a commercial-scale installation at its corn processing and biofuels facility in Decatur, Illinois, that is capable of storing up to 1 million tons of CO2 annually.

The CO2 is being injected into a saline reservoir that’s almost 1.5 miles underground. This isn’t something it can do indefinitely: The project can store up to 5.5 million tons in total, and it’s only slated to run up to five years initially.

Realistically, this isn’t something that ADM can do everywhere. The right combination of geological considerations is necessary for this sort of installation. But the 45Q tax credit for carbon removal projects has made this more feasible, Taylor said, and the approach is being evaluated elsewhere. "We can demonstrate to our colleagues that this technology can be scaled up," she said.

When I spoke with Taylor in early April, I asked about whether the rollout of the new goals might be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the company could have waited until later this spring, she said the team decided to push forward to help keep the ADM workforce focused on the long term, even amid the short-term crisis.

"To see our company looking at the future, this was rewarding for employees," Taylor said. "It’s giving them confidence about the future."

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