Sunday, January 20, 2008

Defining our (current) mission

[ Note: The previous posts in this narrative can be found by searching 'DBI history' ]

We concluded that DBI could be most effective by identifying local stakeholders currently working on biodiesel projects in the Valley (see sidebar), and discovering what issues still needed to be addressed to help them become successful. Also, by contacting the stakeholders in this open and informal way, we hoped to improve our understanding of the issues surrounding biofuels generally.

For example, we discovered early on that a problem with small-scale production of biodiesel is the question of fuel quality. The equipment necessary to do a full set of tests to a sample of fuel is prohibitively expensive for an individual homebrewer, and perhaps even a small coop. Sending batch samples to a commercial testing facility is possible, but also very expensive, and therefore not cost effective for the relatively small batches being produced.

We thought: If there was a way to engage a logical partner with resources and interest, for instance a local community college or university, then conceivably you would have a win-win scenario. The small producer gets accurate and comprehensive quality testing (perhaps for a nominal fee) and the college or university gets real-world material to examine and test. Maybe a angel-funded coop could purchase the testing equipment and turn the 'problem' into a service for homebrewers and other small producers.

Another idea: WVO-based biodiesel appears to be the 'low hanging fruit' in the biofuels world. There is, however, an existing infrastructure to collect and process the large quantities of fryer oil from fast-food chains. This oil is used for pet food, cosmetics, and other products. This so-called 'yellow grease' is a commodity that is traded like any other. But how much of the stuff is there in the Valley? Seems like a good thing to know, especially for a nascent local biodiesel community. Perhaps we could engage some grad students in gathering some of the market data we needed to analyze the potential WVO-based biodiesel production.

Or more directly applicable to homebrewing: one of the first things Brad and I talked about was the need to 'get out of the garage'. Processing small batches of biodiesel is a pretty innocuous affair. Methanol and KOH are not trivial substances, but neither are DRANO and the dozens of other common household chemicals most everyone has in their homes and garages.

The more pressing point was the quantity of chemicals (and processing sidestreams) for producing the amount of biodiesel necessary to become fuel self-sufficient. Identifying possible locations (properly zoned and permitted) for biodiesel processing and chemical storage, handling sidestreams of wash water and glycerol properly: these were issues that we felt both should and could be addressed while preserving the DIY ethic and enthusiasm of the homebrewer community.

A danger that we have talked about is one of exposure: perhaps by going public in this way we would draw attention to activities that had been 'flying under the radar'. But, at least from our perspective, there were a couple compelling reasons to press forward. 1) The 'right' thing to do is be a good neighbor. That includes complying with applicable rules, and if there is room for improvement to the rules, to petition for change. 2) By complying with the rules, we gain a legitimacy in the community to affect change at a larger, more substantial level. One of our primary goals with this project is promote a local biofuels infrastructure that includes commercial, coop and homebrewers. The only way to be included at the table is to show up.

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