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Renewable Energy Group’s CEO says biodiesel industry fueled for post-pandemic challenges


Cynthia Warner took the helm at Ames-based Renewable Energy Group in January 2019. Since then she has guided the renewable fuels company as it continues to grow and compete with the growing demand for electric vehicles. She’s helped the company navigate the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, and earlier this year she found herself on Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year list, coming in at No. 20, a recognition that Warner quickly attributes to her team and those who surround her at REG. Warner credits her previous positions with energy giants such as Amoco and BP, roles that took her across the country and to England and Scotland and back, and her work with a California startup that developed technology to turn algae into biofuel, as well as subsequent positions, for preparing her for her role at REG. “Almost everything I did prepared me for this job, so it’s been a really exciting adventure and career,” she said.

As we come out of the pandemic, what are the biggest challenges facing Renewable Energy Group and the biofuels industry?

The average person in the United States doesn’t really relate to diesel because diesel is primarily a commercial fuel, but if you think about it, the average person does relate to the concept of electric vehicles and the understanding that it’s zero emission and that electrification can be renewable. So with that combination you get lower carbon, so people are very excited about that, as they should be. The thing about bio-based diesel is that we were lower carbon today, 85% lower carbon than petroleum without needing to make all the changes and technological improvements that are needed to get electric vehicles to be conventional, especially in the areas of heavy equipment and long-haul truck travel. So the more we can get the word out, the more enthusiasm there is. There is a lot of enthusiasm for reducing the carbon footprint, which gives us the ability to get that message out there more powerfully.

Are there specific regulatory challenges the industry is facing?

We’re incredibly blessed with the current regulatory environment. We have a lot of good, bipartisan support for things like the biodiesel blending tax credit and the Renewable Fuels Standard in the United States. In Europe, they [are] also very supportive of renewable energy in general and biodiesel specifically, especially when it’s produced from used cooking oil and other waste feedstocks because that’s where you get this really low carbon intensity. We have a wonderful support mechanism and it is needed because we don’t, at this time, compete economically with petroleum. Petroleum is just huge, complex, extremely efficient with huge economies of scale and years and years of the ability to perfect it as they’ve done. We’re only 20 years old, so we have a long way to go to innovate as much as they’ve been able to. The more society begins to value low carbon, the more we will be able to compete. I think the world is starting to move in that direction. If that desire to pay for low carbon got translated to a slightly higher fuel cost for lower-carbon fuel without having to retool, it would be equivalent economics with a higher fuel price and then we wouldn’t need support from the regulation as much. I think the world is starting to move in that direction … because it shouldn’t be a subsidy forever and we shouldn’t be asking for that. But the launch has been fabulous and we continue to need that support as we scale and get the word out that low carbon is a great thing.

Describe your management style.

My intention is always to foster an environment of innovation, collaboration and teamwork where people feel empowered to get to do what they want to do. What I like to do is set a vision so we can all work together on what we’re doing with purpose and then help people get what they need in order to get their jobs done. I love this environment. The culture was already really strong when I got here, so I feel like we were kind of meant for each other in some ways.

What was your reaction to being named to Fortune’s businessperson of the year list?

Obviously, we all were very excited to see that happen, and it was completely because of REG. I don’t personalize it much at all. It’s really that I’m a leader of a remarkable place and doing amazing things. I’m thrilled we got that kind of honor and recognition and I’m hoping that’s just the front end of growing recognition of the power of what we do and the value that we bring to society. 

Who are some of the people that influenced you growing up, and in your career?


If I stand back and think about it, I’ve been blessed my entire life with people who have inspired me. Even from childhood, my choir director and different figures at church have been inspirational, or the swim team coach and lots of wonderful teachers. And when I first started in the industry I was one of the few women, and so many really wonderful experienced engineers took me under their wing and helped guide me, so it’s really hard to single out just one because I can pretty much tell you in almost every single experience I’ve had, there was a person who was patient with me and encouraging me to do the best I could and help steer me if I was getting off course, so I have a lot of gratitude for a huge number of people. It’s been a wonderful thing. 

What makes you tick?

I’ve always wanted to make a difference and bring a little different thing to whatever I was doing.  You have to do your day job well and do what your boss asks, but to the extent you can look around you and see, hey, I can make this happen, that nobody even asked for but I can see there’s a value to it, it makes everything hum and I get a really big kick out that. Once I realized there was a connection between energy and improving the environment, I think that became a mission for me of solving problems through that lens.

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