Looking for ways to go green this winter? Try dinner at the local gas station.
Fas Mart's convenience stores burn through half a million pounds of shortening each year cooking up fried chicken. Now the company's trying to turn that waste into pump profit by selling it to Reco Biodiesel in Shockoe Bottom, which turns cooking grease and other animal byproducts into biodiesel.
Fas Mart's used vegetable oil provides a measure of security for Reco in winter, which is biodiesel's down season.
It's simple arithmetic for Fas Mart. The biodiesel market has grown to the point where the stores can sell the goop they used to pay to get rid of. The savings will be “significant,” says Neal A. Frandsen, Fas Mart's procurement manager: “You're looking at $20,000 that we're making versus losing.”
But Reco lives and dies in a complex commodities market. The chemical procedure that converts natural fats into motor fuel can be performed on a variety of oils, but different oils present different problems. For example, poultry fat — plentiful and cheap — congeals at a higher temperature than others, making it a clog risk to trucks that sit overnight in chilly lots.
When temperatures drop, most biodiesel producers switch from poultry fat to sources that have lower saturated fat contents. Often that means working with more expensive products, like soybean oil, until the weather warms in the spring. If they're lucky, like Reco, they tap in to a cheaper, used-oil supply, like Fas Mart's vegetable oil.
Sales are brisk. Tim Earley, who sells biodiesel at the pump as operations director for Woodfin Watchcard Fleet Fueling, says biodiesel is selling for about a nickel more per gallon than regular gasoline and diesel.
“Sales have been fairly steady,” he says. “People who use it are fairly committed to it.” Because biodiesel has lower sulfur and carbon dioxide emissions, he says, it's a greener choice.
So Reco and other biodiesel producers have the benefit of consumers driven by demand based on environmental commitment, but recent cheaper gas prices have made winning new customers difficult.