Grease Lightning has tapped into the millions of pounds of used cooking oil from New York City area businesses to produce biodiesel.
Feeding the more than more than 23 million people who call New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut home requires a lot of cooking oil. Until a few years ago, restaurants had few options but to dispose of all those greases and fats down a drain or in a landfill. But in 2010, Unity Fuels, which does business under the name Grease Lightning, provided an alternative.
Rather than a restaurant paying to dispose of its used cooking oil, Grease Lightning pays the restaurant instead. It’s managing partners, Jeff DeWeese and Malek Jalal, decided to start a biodiesel company and wanted a cost-efficient feedstock. They also brought on Jamie Hutson as head of business development to help build a customer base.
“The basic thought behind it was the opportunity to add value to this waste stream restaurants typically paid to get rid of,” says Hutson. “So our proposition to the restaurants was to take this waste away for free and even pay them a few cents for it.”
With one truck and a few accounts, the company began collecting used cooking oil from restaurants in the tri-state area. Hutson says restaurants were receptive to the idea. “We had a green story. We were helping the environment and helping the bottom line.”
Grease Lightning collects used cooking oil from 3,500 different locations in the tri-state area. The company provides barrels or drums to its customers to store the used cooking oil. Suppliers of used cooking oil range from Applebee’s to Smash Burger. The company also collects oil from and major venues like Madison Square Garden and Penn Station and even amusement parks.
Depending on the time of year, some of Grease Lightning’s customers’ supplies fluctuate, but those ebbs and flows seem to balance out. Hutson says while amusement parks are a large supplier in the summer, Madison Square Garden and New York City as a whole are busier in the winter months. Winter can pose problems with the oil becoming less viscous. It also is more difficult for trucks to get around in the snow.
Hutson says it doesn’t matter the size of the restaurant, Grease Lightning will work with it. “We will give any restaurant a container and once that container is full, we will pick it up,” he says. “Any restaurant is a viable customer for us.”
And Hutson says many restaurants are interested in the service Grease Lightning provides. In New York City, restaurants are given a letter grade that is posted outside the restaurant. Hutson says how the restaurants handle their used cooking oil makes up part of that grade.
A fleet of about 20 trucks collect the used cooking oil from participating restaurants. They use hoses and vacuum pumps to suck the oil into the truck. Then it goes back to the company’s processing facilities in Ridgefield Park, N.J., and Hicksville, N.Y., where the impurities are removed.
Hutson describes the process as pretty straightforward. “We heat the product. We run it through an oil/water separator, and then we filter it to get all the solids and additional water out.”
Grease Lightning processes about 4.5 million pounds of oil per month. The finished product is then loaded onto railcars and shipped to biorefineries, most of which are in the Midwest.
“We remove the waters and impurities so we can sell it to these biodiesel producers as feedstock that is close to what they would buy a pure vegetable oil for, but at a discounted price,” explains Hutson. He says the oil Grease Lightning sells is 99 percent pure.
Hutson says an important factor in the company’s growth is the quality it provides to the biodiesel companies. “We produce consistent high-quality feedstocks that they can put right into their systems and use without hesitating,” he says.
According to Hutson, newer companies entering the business are still trying to figure out their purifying processes and how to be consistent with their product. Grease Lightning has a patent on its processing system. It custom builds its oil/water separators for the company’s use.
The biodiesel can be used to replace diesel or used as heating oil. Grease Lightning uses a 50/50 biodiesel blend in its trucks.
Hutson says biodiesel has many benefits. “Biodiesel is a good product. It produces about 80 percent fewer carbon emissions than the diesel equivalent so it offers a significant reduction in sulfur, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulates that cause smog and asthma,” he says.
Hutson adds that a large portion of the biodiesel produced in the U.S. is produced from used cooking oil recovered from waste streams. “It really is a pretty nice cycle of energy production in the U.S.,” says Hutson. “I think there is definitely a good opportunity for continued growth.”
Not only is biodiesel slightly less expensive than diesel, it has the same efficiencies and it acts as a solvent, meaning it will clean the engine, according to Hutson.
He says biodiesel is often referred to as a “plug and play” fuel because no engine retrofitting is required to use it. “You don’t need to do anything to [the engine], just pour it into your car,” Hutson explains.
Other diesel alternatives like compressed natural gas (CNG) require retrofitting, and Hutson points out that CNG fueling stations are “still not that ubiquitous.”
Hutson says the biodiesel business is tied closely to oil prices. “Our entire industry is based one way or another on the price of oil,” he explains. “We are producing a fuel that is a replacement for diesel fuel so you have to cost less than or equal to diesel for there to be a market.”
A Little Help
The federal Renewable Fuel Standard and other state regulations have helped the biofuel industry gain traction in the United States. In addition, states such as Minnesota and New York have mandates for diesel or heating oil requiring biodiesel to be used, and California’s low carbon fuel standard incentivizes the use of biodiesel.
“Regulation has definitely helped support the industry,” says Hutson, who points out that the traditional oil industry also began with incentives for drilling. “The industry needs support to get started, but it is a vibrant and growing industry,” he says.
Hutson likes doing business in The Big Apple, as he says regulations in that city support a healthy lifestyle. He contends the purpose of many of the city’s regulations such as food waste recycling, composting requirements and reducing air pollution fit with what Grease Lightning is all about.
“New York City is a heavily regulated marketplace in a lot of good ways,” he says. “All that goes along with our story of renewable energy and recycling waste into energy.”
The company currently composts some of the food waste products that come out of its filtering process.
Grease Lightning is working on opening its third processing facility in the tri-state area. Hutson says, “We are looking at expansion opportunities all the time. We are a growing industry. We have a successful model on both ends. Customers are happy from the collection side and so are our feedstock customers.”
The author is managing editor of Renewable Energy from Waste and can be contacted at email@example.com.