Saturday, November 21, 2009

Your turkey grease can clean our air and save taxpayer money

Desert Biofuels Initiative applauds the grease recycling efforts in the Valley (by the Town of Gilbert and AZ Biodiesel, and by the Dynamite Biofuels Co-op) and in Tucson.

At DBI we're not fans of the "Big Agriculture" model of growing corn or soy for conversion to ethanol or biodiesel. This model can can provide some air quality benefits, but otherwise has some serious flaws (e.g. excessive fertilizer runoff, displacing food crops). We're excited about the future potential of next-generation biofuels feedstocks (inputs), such as algae. However, there is another feedstock option that is widely available right now but that is currently being significantly underused as a biofuel input: so-called "yellow grease" or "WVO" -- waste vegetable oil and other similar waste grease, such as from restaurant deep fryers. WVO can be converted into clean-burning biodiesel (that can run in any diesel engine) easily and cheaply.

Did you know that:
  • There are about 10 million gallons of WVO produced annually in the Phoenix metropolitan area, but most of this currently is used as animal feed or simply "disappears" -- often down the drain.
  • If all of the WVO in the region were turned into biofuel that was used locally in place of petroleum diesel, this would take 100,000 tons of CO2 out of Valley air each year -- roughly the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road.
  • We would also reduce the significant taxpayer expense associated with municipalities addressing the hundreds of grease-caused sewer blockages and overflows that occur in the Valley every year.
This Thanksgiving, we all have the opportunity to make a small contribution towards cleaner air and a cleaner wastewater infrastructure: we can recycle our turkey grease and other used cooking oils as biofuel. There are two WVO collection efforts here in the Valley: one in Gilbert, the other in Cave Creek. There is also a notable collection effort in Tucson.

Town of Gilbert and AZ Biodiesel

The Town of Gilbert continues to impress with their ability to demonstrate results when it comes to clean energy. For Thanksgiving they have partnered with Gilbert-based AZ Biodiesel and are collecting household grease at eight of the nine Gilbert fire stations. AZ Biodiesel will convert the grease to fuel, all of which will be used locally -- displacing petroleum diesel and reducing air pollution. Click here for details and a map to the various collection points. We applaud Gilbert's leadership in this area, and deeply appreciate AZ Biodiesel's commitment to the project and to sustainable biofuels in Arizona more generally.

Dynamite Biofuels Co-op.

The Dynamite Biofuels Co-op, a membership-driven grassroots biofuels effort based in Cave Creek, is also providing a grease recycling opportunity. The Co-op will have a grease collection bin at Big Earl's Greasy Eats restaurant, 6135 E. Cave Creek Rd. in Cave Creek. The team at the Co-op are longtime leaders in the Valley on biofuels issues, and we applaud their efforts to make this recycling opportunity available to the community. Check their website for additional details.

[Note: we understand that the Co-op would be willing to provide collection bins and pick up services at other locations in the Valley as well. Restaurant owners or others, please let them know if you would like to participate.]


To their great credit, the Tucson Clean Cities Coalition, Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department, and Grecycle have put on a day-after-Thanksgiving grease drive for several years. This year the drive will run from 9am - 1pm at three locations in Tucson: O'Reilly Chevrolet (6160 E. Broadway), the Pima County Industrial Wastewater Control plant (5025 W. Ina Rd.) and the City of Tucson Water Plan #2 (1102 W. Irvington Rd.). The Clean Cities website will have more detail.

So: this Thanksgiving RECYCLE YOUR GREASE! And while you're doing so, consider the opportunity for cleaner air and wastewater treatment cost savings that we're missing by under- utilizing this local resource as a biofuel feedstock.

[To our friends in the press: we'd love for you to tell this story! Here are some contacts if you'd like more info:

Beth Lucas, Town of Gilbert, (480) 503-6766,
Dan Rees, AZ Biodiesel, contact info
Gene Leach or Jay Nance, Dynamite Biofuels, contact info
Kathryn Van Kirk, Tucson Clean Cities, (520) 792-1093,
Eric Johnson, Desert Biofuels Initiative, (602) 996-9682,]

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

AZ Biofuels Grant Program: A Missed Opportunity

If you had nearly $1 million to spend on advancing biofuels in Arizona, what would you do?

Here's my list:
  • Fund a program to incentivize restaurants to convert their waste vegetable oil into biodiesel. There are over 10 million gallons of WVO produced annually in the Phoenix area alone. The vast majority of this WVO goes into animal feed or is "missing" (presumably frequently going into the sewer system). Converting this WVO to biodiesel would have dramatic air quality and other benefits -- and would likely reduce the substantial costs to taxpayers associated with the hundreds of annual grease-caused sewer blockages in AZ. Prices in the WVO collection market don't reflect these air quality benefits or avoided municipal costs, however. Fixing this market flaw with a state-funded incentive program would yield us cleaner air and save real money for local governments.
  • Support the algae biofuels industry. Algae-derived biofuels ("green solar," to borrow Mark Edwards' nomenclature) are an incredibly promising, potentially transformational technology. Arizona should be a leader in this space: we have the necessary natural resources (sun, heat, wastewater, cheap flat land), leading-edge world-class university research (ASU Poly, ASU Biodesign), unrivaled pilot implementations by APS, and an array of entrepreneurs doing amazing work. Yet other regions such as San Diego, New Mexico, and even St. Louis are seen as algae leaders; Arizona isn't even on the map. The state could fund demonstration projects that enable researchers and entrepreneurs to connect, and that showcase Arizona's strengths in this area.
  • Explore innovative agricultural feedstock options that work in our climate. For example, researchers in AZ have suggested that former open pit mines in the state could be seeded with low-water-need crops that could be used as biofuels inputs. The state could support pilot projects that focus on agricultural approaches to biofuels that fit our unique circumstances, with a goal of not displacing food crops.
  • Support biodiesel co-ops. The biodiesel "homebrew" community -- individuals who collect WVO and convert it to biodiesel at home -- has been far in front of the commercial community in terms of getting clean-burning biofuels in tanks and on the road in Arizona. The independence, innovation and initiative of the homebrewers is admirable, yet there are some safety and other challenges associated with homebrewing. Co-ops can serve to balance interests, enabling the do-it-yourself ethos within a more manageable environment. Biofuels co-ops in Arizona have struggled for funding and regulator support, however. The state could fund a pilot project that demonstrates the value of co-ops for reducing homebrew-related risks and enabling grassroots-based innovation.
All of the ideas above focus on what DBI calls "sustainable regional biofuels" -- that is, creating biofuel locally, in a sustainable manner, and using it locally. The benefits of this approach are (1) environmental (cleaner air), (2) economic (keep more of the $4 BILLION that Arizonans spend on fuel in the state), and (3) security-related (e.g., make ourselves less vulnerable to a pipeline disruption).

The state of Arizona is currently spending $900,000 on the "Arizona Biofuels Conversion Program." The program focuses on subsidizing fueling-station owners or other businesses (e.g. fleet owners) who convert their fuel infrastructure to handle biofuels -- either E85 (ethanol) or biodiesel. The program provides up to 40% matching funds for a conversion project, up to a maximum of $30K. Another aspect of the program provides similar support for municipalities.

My reaction: eh. Given the big opportunities with biofuels, this program seems to be targeted at a narrow problem. Further, the benefits to Arizona appear modest: if this program leads to more stations carrying ethanol, for example, and more people start using it, that could help our local air quality problems. But, given that corn ethanol and soy biodiesel -- the primary types of biofuels that would be sold via the subsidized infrastructure for the foreseeable future -- are produced out of state, using processes that (arguably) cause some environmental and economic problems (e.g., excessive fertilizer run-off, displacement of food crops), it's not obvious that the net benefits of the program are that high.

I would have liked to see the program focus on fostering local production of sustainable biofuels. I believe that if we had a robust local supply, demand would follow. And if we had supply and demand, I think the infrastructure issues that are the focus of the program would potentially be unnecessary.

What would you do with $1 million?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Updated "Biodiesel 101" available

An updated version of Han Huth's amazingly comprehensive "Biodiesel 101: An Introductory Guide to Brewing and Using Biodiesel in Arizona" is available at This is an incredible free resource for the AZ homebrew community. You can support Hans' efforts by purchasing a "Grease for Peace" bumper sticker via his site.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Some upcoming events

There are several events coming up that might be of interest:

1. On Sunday, November 8th, SustainaBIL, an "unconference" modeled on the BIL Conference, will be held at ASU Skysong beginning at 11am. I had a chance to talk with with conference co-organizer Brian Shaler today, and it sounds like the day will be quite interesting and fun. The organizers describe the event as "an unconference for people changing the world in big ways. It's a place for passionate people to come together to energize, brainstorm, and take action." Show up and listen, or show up and plan to talk about your passions. Send email to if you have a topic you'd like to speak about.

2. The 4th Annual Arizona Entrepreneurship Conference is coming up on November 12. DBI advisor Francine Hardaway is a principal organizer of this event. I attended last year and was extremely impressed with the energy in the rooms and the quality of the speakers, presentations and discussions. Highly recommended.

[SEE UPDATE BELOW] 3. ASU Technopolis is hosting an all-day workshop on November 13 "targets early-stage, first-time, writers of SBIR/STTR Program Phase I proposals, and is created for energy companies looking for grant funding. All government agencies will be covered, but special emphasis will be given to the Department of Energy. A review and discussion of various appropriate technology roadmaps will be included in the workshop." I suspect that this could be extremely valuable for some local biofuels companies. Details by phone 480-884-1804 or e-mail

[UPDATE: The Technopolis event has been postponed until after the 1st of the year.]