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Turning grease into energy

Biodiesel plant in Greenfield to provide new source of fuel for western New England

For more information about biodiesel, the Northeast Biodiesel project and Co-op Power, visit www.northeastbiodiesel.com or www.cooppower.com. By way of disclosure, Barry Aleshnick serves on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of The Commons.

BRATTLEBORO—After five years of development and planning, ground has been broken on a new biodiesel plant in Greenfield, Mass.

Northeast Biodiesel hopes to produce up to 3.5 million gallons a year of recycled vegetable oil biodiesel for home heating and transportation in a plant to be located in the Greenfield Industrial Park.

Construction is set to begin on the new 6,600-square-foot building this month, with biodiesel fuel production slated to begin in January 2011. The biodiesel plant will use a chemical process to change recycled vegetable oil and animal fat to biodiesel and glycerine.

Biodiesel can be added to diesel fuel blends, up to 20 percent, without the need to modify a vehicle’s engine. Recent research done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown that producing biodiesel fuels made from recycled vegetable oil and grease can reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent.

Larry Union, president and CEO of Northeast Biodiesel, said at the groundbreaking ceremony on Aug. 3 that “the two key factors enabling Northeast Biodiesel to move forward now are technology changes permitting production of biodiesel at smaller scales, and the patience of our investors.”

The collapse of the financial markets three years ago meant Northeast Biodiesel was unable to get the funding that the company originally sought. Its principals turned to local investors and to Co-op Power, a member-owned cooperative founded in 2005 to create community-owned renewable energy resources across the Northeast.

Co-op Power, which owns 60 percent of Northeast Biodiesel, invested about $150,000 of its member equity in the company, which then used that money to leverage $1 million from 24 investors.

The plan is for private investors to be paid back in 10 years, when the company will then be owned 70 percent by Co-op Power and 30 percent by the plant’s employees.

“Members understand that if we want to have long-term community ownership of our energy supplies, we have to invest our own money,” said Lynn Benander, Northeast Biodiesel Board Chair and CEO of Co-op Power. “We want to be stewards of this plant for generations to come.”

Together, Northeast Biodiesel and Co-op Power say they are creating 34 new jobs by year’s end. Northeast Biodiesel will create 15 jobs, with 13 employees, projected to work three shifts a day, seven days per week. Co-op Power is creating another 19 jobs through its other businesses.

No competition for local grease

Some local “grease car” enthusiasts have expressed concern that the new Northeast Biodiesel plant will cut into their sources of used vegetable oil.

Barry Aleshnick of Guilford has been collecting oil from Brattleboro-area restaurants for several years. “People come up to me all the time trying to get me to pick up their oil,” he said. “There definitely is a market for it now.”

Aleshnick, who runs his car on 100 percent used vegetable oil, said he’s worried that growing competition for waste oil around New England might lead to shortages for backyard fuel makers in southern Vermont.

Benander said there’s no need to worry.

“We’re working hard to not disrupt the local grease car economy,” said Benander. “Though we’re committed to buying local, we’re purchasing most of our grease from far away as we launch.”

Benander said Northeast Diesel is working with Masasachusetts groups in Pittsfield, Roxbury, Dorchester and Holyoke to secure contracts with restaurants in those markets for used oil. The plant expects to take in up to 6,000 gallons a day.

“We’ve send out e-mails inviting people to talk with us and help us build a grease collection system that will work for them,” she added.

A big move for Co-op Power

There are nearly 400 members of Co-op Power in New England. A membership share in Co-op Power costs $975, which can be paid in over time and can be repaid at any time.

The co-op offers discounted share purchases to members with limited incomes and to farmers.

The co-op is now working in five communities and regions to develop “organizing councils” under its umbrella to create community ownership of renewable energy businesses.

They include Windham County in Vermont, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties in western Massachusetts, and the greater Boston area.

Members get discounts on products and services, such as solar energy installations and energy efficiency items or bulk pricing on biodiesel and heating oil.

“[Things] have been off to a slower start than I had hoped, but we’re building a foundation,”  said Tom Simon of Marlboro, who heads the southern Vermont branch of Co-op Power.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #62 (Wednesday, August 11, 2010).

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