Veggie oil idea burns bright


BLAIR, Wis. – Even in the fringe world of alternative fuels, vegetable oil has mostly remained on the margins, the domain of a few do-it-yourselfers who have rigged their diesels to run on old fryer fat, making the rounds of local burger joints to fill their tanks.

But the veggie power movement is about to stick one greasy toe into the mainstream, as a company in this western Wisconsin town prepares to open what its owners believe is the first recycling and filling station for waste vegetable oil in the Midwest, and one of just a couple in the nation.

“The problem with vegetable oil is not the technology, it’s the infrastructure,” said Coulee Region Bio-Fuels co-owner Taavi McMahon, a lawyer who also is president of a biofuels cooperative in Madison, Wis.

“We’ve been encouraging people to convert to vegetable oil, and when they’ve asked about fuel availability, we’ve said, well, get ready to go Dumpster-diving.”

While clean-burning vegetable oil is widely used as a fuel in Germany, it has only recently begun to catch on in the United States.

It is not among the eight power sources the U.S. government tracks through its Alternative Fuels Data Center, which provides information on biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, methanol, natural gas, propane and an obscure blend of fuels called P-series.

“I don’t know of anyone (in federal government) who is doing anything on vegetable oil,” said Roxanne Dempsey, a senior project manager for the Energy Department, who noted that alternative fuels account for less than 1 percent of the nation’s energy use.

The lack of data makes it difficult to judge vegetable oil against other types of alternative fuels for efficiency and other economic benefits.

But McMahon, who also supports ethanol and biodiesel, says grease rises to the top in a comparison because it requires almost no heat processing or energy-adding ingredients.

INOV8, a company based in nearby La Crosse, helped develop the Blair facility to boost its line of vegetable-oil-burning water heaters and boilers.

“Most of the attention has been focused on the automobile sector, but we see huge potential in stationary uses” including in restaurants and greenhouses, said INOV8’s Matt Fisher.

“Up until this recycling center opened up, there wasn’t any easy access to this type of fuel. This expands our market base.”