Clean energy and fuels are becoming more and more prominent all across the country, and a Jefferson City native is helping to lead the charge at the helm of a nationwide group from his hometown.
A Helias Catholic School and Missouri State University graduate, Donnell Rehagen returned to the state’s Capital City after college to start his family with his wife. Here he began working for the state, initially putting his computer science degree to use doing computer applications with the Department of Economic Development before heading over to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
After earning a graduate degree in public administration at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he began work managing MoDOT’s fleet — a position that introduced him to the emerging biodiesel industry and eventually led to his current role as CEO of Jefferson City-based Clean Fuels Alliance America.
Biodiesel is a renewable fuel made from soybean oil and animal fats. The cleaner fuel source is an alternative to petroleum-based fuels with a lower greenhouse gas effect. According to Clean Fuels’ data, the industry accounts for around 5 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, supports 65,000 jobs across the country and generates $17 billion in economic activity a year. It also cites a study that found the availability of biodiesel reduced the price of diesel fuel by around 4 percent.
The nationwide group, initially called the National Soydiesel Development Board, was founded three decades ago. The Missouri Soybean Association took the lead as several groups in surrounding states began to consider the alternative, Rehagen said, with the University of Missouri also taking part in much of the early research that led to the emerging clean fuel industry and the organization itself.
As the use of soybean oil became more prevalent, the group expanded with an office in Washington, D.C., to head its policy efforts in 2006, the year after Congress passed a biodiesel tax credit program that accelerated the industry’s growth. Clean Fuels also has locations in Boston, Massachusetts, and Sacramento, California. Its reach has expanded to include more than 120 partner companies nationwide.
Most recently known as the National Biodiesel Board, the group’s recent rebrand acknowledges the breadth of clean fuels it covers, including renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel.
Rehagen said he came across the group as he undertook the task of helping MoDOT move toward a greener fleet. While there were plenty of options to make that happen, he said biodiesel was one of the ideas that had the most impact, well before it became a prominent element of the industry and policy down the road.
“I started dealing with biodiesel in 2001 or 2002, when there were maybe 40 million gallons of biodiesel being made in the whole entire country,” Rehagen said. “It was still very much in its infancy stages and Missouri has been a leader in the development of the biodiesel — and now the renewable diesel and sustainable aviation — industries. We’re where things started, because of those who had the foresight and the vision for what we now see as an industry.”
“When I found out the National Biodiesel Board was here in Jefferson City, I was amazed,” he continued. “I made the call to them and we started a working relationship, and a couple of years later I got a call saying they had a job I might be interested in. The strangest part of the whole thing was that I was trying to figure out where to learn more about biodiesel, only to find out its pre-eminent organization was a mile and a half from the office where I worked at the time.”
Rehagen joined the group in 2004 and said he’s loved the work ever since.
While many Jefferson City-based trade associations are Missouri-based and focus on advocacy at the state Capitol, Rehagen said he spent more time in the U.S. Capitol than the statehouse down the road. He said both state and federal policy were vital to the emerging industry’s continued growth: The 2005 federal tax credit led to a boom in the use and production of biodiesel, while other programs — such as the state biodiesel tax credits renewed for a six-year period with Gov. Mike Parson’s signature following a special session this month — were a way to support the industry and the agriculture producers that make up so much of the state’s economy.
While Missouri is a major biofuel producer, Rehagen said many of the largest consumers were across the country. He said a third of the clean fuels produced here go toward California, which is making a large push for decarbonization. As states push a more aggressive green landscape, Rehagen said the demand for Missouri-made fuels would grow even larger.
And with a move to electrified vehicles taking plenty of time to implement, Rehagen said biodiesel and other clean fuels were a more immediate step for cleaner transportation.
“You can use our fuels tomorrow and change your carbon footprint tomorrow. So if your long-term view is we’re going to eventually have electric trucks that are going to move all of our goods between our warehouses and out to our stores, that’s fine,” he said. “But we would suggest that you should be looking at what you can do today and not waiting for that decades-long process.”
As clean fuels take a prominent spot on the roads — and even in home heating and airplane fuels, he said — Rehagen is proud to lead the charge from a community he loves.
“I feel like I’m one of the more fortunate guys on the face of the earth. I love the people I work with, the team that we’ve put together — they’re some of the smartest people that I know,” Rehagen said.
“You couple that with a passion for growing an industry, and then when you look at all of the people that we touch. We bring that kind of benefit to communities that are desiring cleaner air for their families. We’re bringing huge value to agriculture to farmers, and then we’re creating jobs with these plants around the country.
“It’s just a point of pride to think that the whole entire industry started right here in Jefferson City, Missouri, and that I get to be a part of that.”
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