By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
Ok, I admit it - I love the smell of frying chicken. Do you recall how you felt as a child when you got home to your family dinner, and walked into the kitchen to be greeted by that smell, and told to go wash your hands? You could not get to the table fast enough. Little did I know that as an adult I would be writing about the role of cooking oil in energy independence. The hotels and restaurants in the United States use 3 billion gallons of cooking oil per year - enough to fill tanker trucks arranged bumper-to-bumper from San Francisco to Washington D.C. and back! Most of it is used by the fast food industry, to prepare french-fries, fried chicken and so forth. This cooking oil is made from peanuts, soybeans, corn and other plants which can be grown in North Carolina.
Over the past few years, a number of innovators and entrepreneurs have set up small business which make the rounds of restaurants and collect the used cooking oil, and turn it into bio-diesel to put in cars and truck fuel tanks. The process of making bio-diesel is very simple (I know a fellow in Landis who does it in his garage). The bio-diesel is a “drop in” replacement for regular diesel, and produces almost the same miles per gallon as regular diesel – but it has significant advantages. First, it burns cleaner, and keeps engines clean. These clean engines last longer. The second advantage is that it produces less air pollution than diesel fuel from petroleum. The third advantage is that when it is made from an already existing waste product, rather than pumped from underground, it costs less than diesel oil, and contributes less to climate change. What a win-win-win.
Up till now, the innovative part of this system was taking a waste product restaurants used to pay to have hauled away, and converting to a system where people would haul it off for free or in exchange for a small payment, because the entrepreneur who took it away could make something of value out of it. New small businesses were formed, restaurants saved money, and diesel engines ran cleaner. The challenge with this set up was that it was often informal, and led to lack of predictability in several steps of the process. Bright minds began to try to improve that process so it could scale up and become a stable part of our energy mix. The Forest Foundation, (created by graduates of Duke University’s School of the Environment) created a system where the bio-diesel manufacturer buys the cooking oil in very large amounts, leases it to the restaurants, and after it is no longer useful as a cooking tool, they collect it back. The good part of the deal for the restaurants is that the lease terms are cheaper for than outright purchase – and they no longer have to worry about getting rid of the old oil.
Think about it – cooking oil is leased, not sold, and taken back when its first chore is done. And then it is processed and turned into bio-diesel. What we are seeing is the emergence of a new source of motor fuel, at this point very small in the grand appetite for oil our country has, but exquisitely creative in the economic structure of the deal. Because the homegrown oils serve two purposes (cooking and motor fuel) instead of just one, the greater system economic efficiency reduces barriers to wider use, and assists in the creation of new markets for agriculture products, while making America more energy secure. The Biofuels Magazine recently published a map showing 8 biofuels companies in North Carolina.
Agriculture researchers continue to lower the cost of plant based oils at an impressive rate, and identify plants that yield oils without using land that produce edible crops. Building on the infrastructure now in place to recycle cooking oils, the early signs of an economically viable, pollution free locally produced motor fuel point to a brighter, cleaner, and more economically stable future. You can help bring this future about by sharing this column with your favorite restaurant, and telling them of local entrepreneurs who are willing to take their waste oil off their hands, and maybe even lease them oil for less than current costs. If you do this, you are moving from worry about our future to action to make it better.
To learn the source of any statistics or facts used in my articles, you can find footnoted copies at www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org.