Pumped on biodiesel
November 24, 2008 · Updated 3:50 PM
J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter
Some Islanders do more than recycle this newspaper and their pop cans. They recycle used vegetable oils and animal fats from local restaurants, turning them into the biodiesel fuel that powers their cars.
Biodiesel from recycled oils is growing in popularity, and several Islanders are now pumping it into their cars. One resident, Dave Nelson, is the production facilities manager at General Biodiesel in West Seattle. According to Yale Wong, the owner of General Biodiesel, he and Nelson “hit it off” a few years ago when Wong shared his interest to start a biodiesel company that relied solely on locally recycled oils.
“I think there are less than six commercial biodiesel producers in all of Washington state right now,” Wong said. “We want to sell our product commercially and to everybody — from farming tractors to buses, trains and boats.”
General Biodiesel, which renders the used oils into fuel in West Seattle, has the capacity to produce 15 million gallons, but Wong hopes to get three million produced this year.
“We have a lot of companies lined up to consume all of our fuel,” Wong said. “We plan to be the local favorite guys, who collect domestically and sell domestically. We want our image to be a true waste energy company, one that takes waste and turns it into energy.”
General Biodiesel also collects used oils from about 36 Island restaurants. “Quite possibly all of them,” Wong said.
The owners of El Sombrero Mexican Restaurant in the South end shopping center said they are happy to supply Nelson with their used oil. Daniel Rodriquez said he used to pay about $40 a month to have the used oils hauled away, and now Nelson takes it away free of charge.
Another group of Islanders used to pump biodiesel out of the recycling center near Mercerdale Park for about two years. Harry Leavitt, who helps run the recycling center and donates the proceeds to Mercer Island High School, also donated a 70-gallon portable tank with a hand pump to supply Island residents with biodiesel. However, Leavitt stopped supplying the biodiesel he got from the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and the tanks are now used by a Seattle biodiesel co-op.
Islander Kim Kendall, who has been pumping biodiesel since 2003, said she is now looking for a new pumping location on the Island.
“We’d hand pump our fill of the fuel and write [Leavitt] a check for the gallons we used,” Kendall said.
Kendall said she would like to see another biodiesel pump at the recycling center, but those available are too big and would block other users of the recycle center and big trucks that pick up the materials.
The City Council recently approved the purchase of a 4,000-gallon tank to be set up at the city maintenance shop. According to Glenn Boettcher, the maintenance director, the city will buy the tank and fuel from a state contract and pump 20-percent biodiesel during winter months. A half-and-half mix of petroleum diesel and biodiesel will be pumped in warmer months. The school district would also use the pumping facility for school buses.
The 24-member Seattle co-op that now uses Leavitt’s homemade tanks is headed by local advocate Lyle Rudensey, who is known as Bio Lyle. Each member is allotted the same amount of biodiesel as the number of gallons of used oil they bring in.
“There are some members with a fuel credit of over 100 gallons because they bring in so much more oil than they need to drive,” the 52-year-old Rudensey said.
The $8,400 machine Rudensey uses can produce 50 gallons of biodiesel every 48 hours, an amount far less than the demand of the co-op. He says he has been making biodiesel since 2001.
“We are struggling to keep up because there are so many overly excited about this,” he said.
The co-op has a waiting list.
Home brewing operations, such as Rudensey’s co-op, are the push behind General Biodiesel’s expansion into the commercial market. Home brewers have mastered rendering of recycled oils for commercial efficiency.
“Home brewing has been a strong presence and will continue to exist alongside the commercial businesses,” Rudensey said. “The commercial learned from home brewers.”
The use of biofuels has been the recent subject of criticism, given the shortage of food supplies associated with it. Ethanol production in the United States alone has been driving up corn and wheat costs as the demand exceeds the supply. And there are other issues. The burning of biodiesel also emits more nitrous oxide, but there are now additives becoming available and sold in stores to clean up emissions. In response to the disadvantages of the alternative fuel, many biodiesel users and producers have made adjustments. King County Metro switched from Iowa-based oils to canola oils from Yakima last summer. Rudensey said that such actions show there are levels of sustainability associated with biodiesel consumption.
“I’d love to see this go the way of the local food movement,” Rudensdy said. “Beekeepers in eastern Washington love that they are now growing canola because it’s good for the bees, and growing canola is good for wheat. So it can be used as a rotating crop.”
Using only recycled oils to produce biodiesel does not strain the demand for food. With General Biodiesel able to produce the recycled fuel commercially and locally, Wong hopes biodiesel will regain its sustainable image. Kendall notes that there also new technologies getting explored in the private sector and at universities across the world.
“If you hear people say that biodiesel is bad — all biodiesel is bad due to the food crops being redirected into the fuel economy versus to feed the world — they are right,” Kendall said. “Except for biofuels made from algae, biowastes and a few other non-crop based sources.”
Upcoming Bio Lyle biodiesel workshops
9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Phinney Neighborhood Center in Seattle. $60 for members, $65 for non-members. Register at 783-2244.
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at South Seattle Community. $59 fee. Register at 764-5339.
6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Shoreline Community College. Fee is $39. Register at 533-6700.