Biofuel office joins big firm to buy used cooking oil

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Larimer-based GTECH Strategies has taken a partner to ramp up its local collection of used vegetable oil for processing into biofuel and to earn proceeds for its environmental projects.

Greenlight Biofuels of Charlottesville, Va., which collects used vegetable oil throughout the Mid-Atlantic and the South, is GTECH's new partner in ReFuel PGH, a project GTECH started in 2010 to collect cooking oil at festivals, from churches and restaurants and household drop-off bins.

GTECH will continue to pick up from small businesses and events, but Greenlight can bring 400-gallon containers to the effort and focus on bigger clients. Besides paying for used vegetable oil, Greenlight publicizes the businesses it contracts with, giving them a public relations advantage, said John Keefe, director of sales and marketing for Greenlight Biofuels.

"We were interested in moving into Pennsylvania, and I found out about GTECH and the cool things they were doing," Mr. Keefe said "We wanted to play a part in that."

GTECH -- Growth through Energy and Community Health -- was a 2007 Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company of three of its public policy graduates. Its first projects were to remediate contaminated land by planting biofuel crops including sunflowers. It has remediated 56 acres in the Pittsburgh area, according to GTECH's communications specialist, Sara Innamorato.

Greenlight collects used vegetable oil and sells it to companies that turn it into fuel. The economic value of the oil fluctuates but the field has become so competitive that theft of used cooking oil is a real problem, Mr. Keefe said.

Until a few years ago, companies offered the removal of used vegetable oil as a free service that saved restaurants the cost of waste disposal. Some still do that, but greater demand has forced a transition. Today, most companies pay restaurants for their used oil.

The average restaurant produces about 50 gallons per month, Mr. Keefe said.

In an article about grease theft, John Colapinto wrote in the Nov. 18 New Yorker that "used cooking oil, correctly processed, burns 80 percent cleaner than fossil fuels, has a smaller carbon footprint than corn ethanol, and doesn't compete with the food supply."

"Rudolph Diesel built the diesel engine to run on peanut oil," Mr. Keefe said, "So many people wonder why we aren't doing that. Wouldn't it be nice for us not to have to import so much crude oil?"

Greenlight has other partnerships that benefit from proceeds. The Atlanta Beltline Project is an example.

The nonprofit Beltline Project works on issues surrounding the development of a former railroad loop around Atlanta into a multi-use destination. Restaurants have sprung up along the Beltline, Mr. Keefe said, "and they have the opportunity to give a percentage of the money we would be paying them for their oil into continued funding" to the nonprofit. "This is an opportunity to check the green box and not have to do anything" inconvenient.

GTECH will benefit similarly, he said.

"We don't know yet how much it will be," said ms. Innamorato. "We have an idea what the potential is. We're going to help co-market this to get more restaurants involved.

"Restaurants will have the option to keep everything they make or donate a portion to us," she said. "That will fund the ReFuel program so we can still provide small-scale collection and more household drop-off bins. GTECH will continue to pick up on the small-scale level of church festivals, fish frys, individual households and restaurants that don't produce a lot of oil."

ReFuel has 57 clients that include yearly festivals, restaurants, schools, churches and corporate cafeterias. So far, the GTECH Greenlight partnership has signed on Sonoma Grille, Downtown.

Collection bins for household vegetable oil are located at Whole Foods in East Liberty and at Frazier Farm at Frazier and Dawson streets in South Oakland. GTECH and Greenlight will install a new, larger ReFuel bin at Whole Foods.

In previous years, GTECH partnered with Fossil Free Fuels, based in Braddock, for used oil collection. Jarrett Reeves, the CEO at Fossil Free Fuels, said GTECH ended that partnership two or three months ago.

"The partnership wasn't working out," Ms. Innamorato said.

Fossil Free Fuels, which has three employees, lacked the capacity GTECH wanted. Greenlight has thousands of clients -- restaurants, property management companies, grocery stores, universities, hotels, airports and sports facilities -- and five regional service facilities.

Besides its greater collection capacity, Greenlight delivers oil for processing into biodiesel, which any diesel engine can run on. Without the processing, engines have to be converted to run on straight vegetable oil.

Fossil Free Fuels has a fueling station in Braddock for cars that have been converted. Greenlight has a transfer station in Braddock for the oil it collects.

"They are looking to gain a strong foothold in the market," said Mr. Reeves. "So they are now our competition."

For more information on ReFuel, visit www.refuelpgh.org or call 412-361-2099, ext. 6.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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