Starting this fall, some school buses in Durham, Johnston and Pitt counties will run on a unique fuel source: used cooking oil.
The three school systems are among the first to sign on to an alternative energy program called Biodiesel 4 Schools, which converts used cooking oil into biodiesel.
Dean Price, CEO and co-owner with Stephen Caldwell of the waste cooking oil company Green Circle North Carolina, started the program in 2012 in hopes of helping to boost the local economy.
“We’re trying to create a new industry in the Triangle, one that’s local in nature, agriculturally based and can be renewable,” Price said.
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Price collects the oil from local restaurants, such as King’s Sandwich Shop in Durham. After passing through a filtering process at a plant in Benson, the oil is converted into biodiesel fuel by Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro.
“I think it’s a huge positive influence, and it’s right in line with a lot of things that are going on in Durham,” said T.J. McDermott, owner of King’s. “Durham is growing, and to be able to participate in a clean-burning fuel, that’s what we should all be doing.”
Price says his system takes a three-phased approach.
“One is we harvest the local used cooking oil,” he said. “Phase two is we would like to see local biodiesel production in Durham County, in Wake County, in Johnston County. The third phase is farmer participation where we start growing the local cooking oil.”
Price is placing his bets on canola, a plant with seeds that are 40 percent oil and 60 percent meal.
“This is an agricultural product that can be grown on the farms of North Carolina,” he said. “Not only are you producing fuel but you’re producing feed, local feed, and instead of us getting our groceries from 1,500 miles away on average, things start being made locally.”
Price said a Georgia-based company called AgStrong, a leading producer of canola and sunflower oil, will be visiting Eastern North Carolina in hopes of expanding to the area. That would be good news for farmers in Johnston County, said Chris Johnson, economic developer for the county.
“It’s an opportunity to create a sustainable energy source here, keep local dollars here by combining resources and things that we’re blessed with here in Johnston County,” Johnson said. “Farmers wouldn’t necessarily have to truck it or put it on rail and send it out of state or send it to some other facility.”
Price began planting the seeds of his idea in 2007, when he built a biodiesel plant next to a truck stop in Southwest Virginia and sold biodiesel converted from canola grown on his own farm in Rockingham County.
“I felt like I had unlocked a key,” he said.
When Price realized there was no way to reconcile a fluctuating gasoline market with a fluctuating crop market, he sold his business and concentrated on schools.
In addition to integrating biodiesel into their school buses, Durham is working with Whole Foods to build a Whole Foods Education Center for Sustainable Solutions. Whole Foods is helping students sell 20,000 funnels that screw on top of 2-liter bottles so they can be used to collect used cooking oil to be converted into biodiesel. For each gallon collected, the schools get 25 cents, and oil is kept out of the sewer system.
“It’s just another way to change the perception of this not being garbage,” Price said. “It’s a very valuable fuel source.”
In the near future, Wake County may also jump on the biodiesel bandwagon. Price presented the idea to the Wake County Public School System in July. At this point, however, more pressing budget issues have prevented the program from being considered.
“It’s very preliminary for us,” said Lisa Luten, communications director for Wake County public schools.
Price is also meeting with school officials in Granville and Vance counties.
“George Washington Carver said the greatest thing that an entrepreneur can do is introduce a new product to society,” he said. “He did it with peanuts; he did it with soybeans. It’s time we had a new crop in this country. One that’s oil-producing.”