What if the same oil that restaurants use to make your favorite fried foods could be saved from the landfill or the drain and instead be used to power your car? Now there are plans to make West Oakland home to a new large-scale processing plant for biodiesel—fuels made by converting plant or food waste oil—that the proposed plant’s owners say could bring new jobs to the community while turning waste oil into a cleaner-burning renewable fuel source.
Plans for the construction of a new, energy-independent biodiesel plant in West Oakland were approved on October 25 by the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) board, which voted in an agreement with Oakland-based Viridis Fuels to begin the construction of a biofuel processing facility by July 1, 2013. The plant is expected to produce 20 million gallons per year.
“We’re very proud and pleased to be able to bring this project to fruition locally,” said Viridis Fuels CEO Kathy Neal, who is an Oakland native and a former port commissioner.
The plant is slated to be built adjacent to the wastewater treatment facility near the Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza on land owned by EBMUD, just south of I-580, east of the West Grand exit. Viridis signed two leases on two separate three-acre parcels. One site would eventually house a processing plant, administrative offices, a public education center, a laboratory, rail and truck loading facilities, a power plant and a maintenance facility. The other will be used for temporary needs related to the construction of the biofuel plant.
One of the things I’m most excited about is the education center,” said Neal, which she said will help people understand the history of biodiesel, its uses and why it’s good for the environment. The company also plans to construct catwalks at the plant that would enable students and members of other organizations to tour the facility and see how the biodiesel is made. “We want to provide hands-on experiences for people to understand what biodiesel is,” she said.
Biodiesel is a cleaner burning alternative to petroleum-based fuels; according to an EPA study, biodiesel results in a 57% reduction in greenhouse gases as compared to fossil diesel. It can be produced from a variety of oils, such as those from soybeans, waste vegetable oils, algae, and other plant sources. Biodiesel can be used to power diesel engines either in its pure form or it can be blended with conventional petroleum-based diesel.
Making biodiesel requires three steps. First, any sticky material needs to be removed from the oil source, also known as the “feedstock.” This is called “de-gumming.” Next, glycerin is removed from the feedstock with a sodium methylate catalyst—a chemical that reacts with the oil and changes its chemical structure. Finally, the biodiesel needs to be purified of any lingering contaminants. Traditional technologies require rinsing the biodiesel with water to remove any impurities, but Viridis is exploring new distillation and resin technologies for their plant that will eliminate the creation of any wastewater.
“From beginning to end, this technology is a totally closed process,” said Neal, meaning that it produces no water discharge and no air emissions. The chemical catalysts used would be recovered and reused, she said.
Viridis also plans to operate the production facility completely off the electrical grid, through a combined heat and power system, which refers to a single, integrated system that will simultaneously produce thermal and electrical energy on-site at the plant. Neal said that they are exploring both solar and fuel cell technologies for the finished design of the plant.
Viridis secured the project agreement after EBMUD put out a request for proposal to more than 100 biofuel industry professionals in 2009. A few years ago EBMUD started a small-scale biodiesel pilot program of its own, and its request for proposal was the next step in pursuing that endeavor. Abby Figueroa, a spokesperson for EBMUD, said that Viridis demonstrated “a synchronicity with what we’re trying to do here.” Figueroa said that EBMUD would like to be using biodiesel for its fleet of trucks, and of that having a large-scale biodiesel plant nearby would help to make that a reality.
But some people doubt whether the ambitious project will come to fruition. Paul Lacourciere, CEO of Northern Californian biodiesel producer Sirona Fuels, expressed doubt about the scale of the Viridis project—20 million gallons a year. “I move 55,000 gallons a month,” he said. “These guys are going to have to move 55,000 gallons a day. That’s a lot of oil.”
Lacourciere, whose company owns and operates the Oakland-based Blue Sky Bio-fuels production facility, said that trying to move that much biodiesel from the EBMUD location will likely present a host of problems. “The average truck carries 7,000 gallons,” he said. “That means more than eight fuel trucks have to be loaded every day. It’s a logistical nightmare.”
In addition to selling that much oil, acquiring enough feedstock may also be a challenge, he said. Lacourciere estimates that there are about 5-15 million gallons of feedstock available in the Bay Area annually, less than the 20 million gallons Viridis projects that its plant will produce. “That means they’ll have to pull in oil from across the state and across the country,” he said.
Lacourciere gets about 75 percent of his feedstock directly from restaurants, and the remaining 25 percent from collecting companies. “Collectors go to the market, so they charge $2-3 more per gallon,” he said. He predicts that these conditions will put Viridis in what he calls the “refinery squeeze”—having to pay high prices for feedstock while simultaneously having to sell large amounts of product at a low enough price to stay competitive in the biofuel market will squeeze the company in the middle, he said.
Neal said that her company is currently putting together contracts with feedstock suppliers. Neal declined to name any names, but said that a number of businesses in the East Bay that collect oils and greases from restaurants have shown interest in creating business partnerships with Viridis.
The biodiesel industry is also facing conflicting pressures on the federal level that may affect the future of processing plants. On December 31, the federal tax credit for small agri-biodiesel producers is scheduled to run out. Lacourciere estimates that could mean the loss of up to 30,000 biofuel industry jobs in the near future. But with the US Environmental Protection Agency establishing national standards for the amount of renewable fuel required to be blended into transportation fuels, which will increase to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, the demand for biodiesel is expected to increase.
The Viridis project is estimated to cost approximately $80 million dollars to complete, produce 50 jobs at the plant and indirectly provide an additional 100 jobs to the West Oakland area. Neal said most of the 50 plant jobs that would be created by the project would be entry level and that there would be internal training opportunities that would allow for the hiring of local people. The company would also commit to hiring some formerly incarcerated people. “We want to be a real resource to address some of the job challenges that we have in our communities these days,” she said.
Viridis hopes to have the plant operating in 18-20 months from now, and though designs for the plant are not yet complete, Neal said they would be investing in horizontal, low-profile storage containers, and drought tolerant landscaping around the facility.
The plant will be a biodiesel wholesaler rather than selling directly to the general public.
“We’re strong advocates for good solid local business, developing local jobs at livable wages, and we’re advocates for environmental protection,” Neal said. “This project really brings us the best of both worlds.”