Smithfield Herald

Cooking oil becomes biodiesel

Starting with canola seeds, right, cooking oil is yellow. After being used, it turns brown. On the left is a beaker of biodiesel made from the used cooking oil. Pictured Jan. 28.
Starting with canola seeds, right, cooking oil is yellow. After being used, it turns brown. On the left is a beaker of biodiesel made from the used cooking oil. Pictured Jan. 28.

To date, Johnston County schools have received about $500 from something that most people throw away.

But it’s not trash to Dean Price, co-owner of Green Circle NC, a Benson company that helps turn used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.

Price thinks used cooking oil can play an important role in the local economy, so he started a program called Biodiesel 4 Schools. Green Circle, a start-up founded in early 2012, collects the cooking oil from restaurants and filters it at its plant in Benson. It then sells the oil to Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, which converts the cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. He donates half of the proceeds to schools.

But Price’s dream goes further: He hopes to foster a self-sustaining economy in which school buses run on biodiesel produced in their own county.

“Five years ago, this material was considered trash,” Price said of cooking oil.

His goal is to take discarded things and turn them into something new. “We need to take our resources and add value to them,” Price said.

Green Circle launched Biodiesel 4 Schools in Pitt County in the summer of 2012. Last year, the program has donated about $24,000 to the schools there. About 175 restaurants in Pitt are participating in the oil-recylcing program.

Price started the program in Johnston County in the spring of 2012. So far, that’s added up to just one check for $578, but Price hopes that will grow as more restaurants participate. So far, about 60 have signed up.

Price said the first $7,500 from selling the filtered cooking oil goes back to Green Circle to pay for the cost of transporting and filtering. All profits after that are split 50/50 between Green Circle and the school system.

Johnston schools spokeswoman Tracey Peedin-Jones called the program “a great way for us to be hands-off when it comes to the fundraising piece and be able to earn money for the county.”

Plus, the program helps restaurants get rid of oil in an environmentally-friendly way, Peedin-Jones said. “If we’re able to help the restaurants get rid of something and it be done in a green way that’s going to help the environment, that’s wonderful, and we’re glad to be a part of that,” she said.

Running Johnston County school buses on biodiesel looks unlikely, said Patrick Jacobs, chief operations officer. That’s because doing so could void the buses’ warranty. But Price is hopeful that change in public opinion will eventually lead to wider acceptance of biodiesel.

The $578 has gone into the school system’s general fund. Peedin-Jones said the schools are waiting to see how much comes in before earmarking the money.

Ken Perry is manager of Texas Steakhouse near Carolina Premium Outlets. Before the restaurant started giving its used cooking oil to Green Circle, it had to pay $130 a month to have it hauled away, Perry said.

Perry likes the program because it’d good for the restaurant, the schools and the environment, he said. “Costs me nothing and helps me out, so it’s been good all the way around,” he said.

How it works

Price’s company drives a truck to restaurants and picks up the oil. Then, at its plant in Benson, Green Circle filters out the residue from french fries and other foods. It sells that mush to pig farmers as feed.

Next, Green Circle heats the oil to 160 degrees. Restaurants often add water to the oil during cooking, so this lets to water sink to the bottom using heat and gravity.

Next, the oil goes to Piedmont Biofuels. Price described the process of turning cooking oil into biodiesel as simple as “high school chemistry.” Normal diesel engines can run on biodiesel, which is 93 percent as efficient as normal diesel fuel, Price said.

Price’s company sends 13,000 to 15,000 gallons of oil a month to Pittsboro. Green Circle employs three full-time people and three part-timers.

Price first came up with the idea after Hurricane Katrina; he owned a truck stop at the time and watched diesel prices skyrocket after the storm.

So he started growing canola to make cooking oil that he converted to biodiesel and sold at his truck stop. But the price of diesel fluctuated too much to justify the expense of growing canola, so Price turned to another source of cooking oil: restaurants. A national best-seller called “The Unwinding” by George Packer featured Price and his innovative ideas.

Price has also launched Biodiesel 4 Schools in two South Carolina counties and hopes to expand the program in North Carolina. Eventually, he would like to see an economy in which farmers grow the fuel they use to run their tractors, and school buses run on that same fuel.

That would keep money local instead of sending it to out-of-state and foreign oil companies, Price said. “It’s a circular economy where it’s sustainable,” he said. “This industry is laden with jobs from the field all the way to when you burn it out the tailpipe.”