Alabama cities moving to biofuels

Hoover, Ala., has made another major stride toward energy self-sufficiency by using leftover cooking oil donated by local restaurants to fuel some of its municipal fleet.

The Montgomery Advertiser reported recently that the city made its first batch of biodiesel from waste vegetable oil and already has used it in two city vehicles. The Advertiser reports the city is able to process about 55 gallons of biodiesel at one time.

City fathers vow this is only the beginning. The city plans to expand biodiesel use if initial experiments work. No customizing of the vehicles is required to run the alternative fuel.

Yet, while Hoover is way ahead of the curve, one biofuels expert says they are by no means the only Alabama municipality striving for energy self-sufficiency.

Mark Hall, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System regional agent specializing in alternative fuel technology and education, cites Daphne Utilities, a water, sewer and gas utility serving 10,000 customers in and around the Gulf Coast city of Daphne, Ala., as another success story.

As in so many cases, necessity has been the mother of invention, according to Robert McElroy, who heads the company.

Like so many other utilities across Alabama and the nation, Daphne Utilities “faces many challenges associated with waste water treatment, particularly disposal issues related to oil and grease, and the impact of rising fuel costs,” McElroy says.

Oil and grease in sewer lines is a major source of line blockages leading to sewer spills,” he says, adding that both substances also complicate the waste-water treatment process.

Even so, McElroy says his company has managed to convert some of these liabilities into assets.

Daphne Utilities already collects between 400 and 500 gallons of waste oil per month and plans to expand its efforts with more collection sites. The city of Daphne also has enacted a so-called “Grease Ordinance,” requiring many commercial establishments to install grease traps, so that it also can be collected for disposal.

But Daphne Utilities still faces the challenge of disposing of the massive amounts of oil and grease generated by these recycling programs — the inspiration behind the company’s biodiesel program.

Currently all diesel-powered vehicles and heavy equipment associated with the utility operate with biodiesel. The utility also provides biodiesel to Daphne Public Works vehicles and equipment.

As the utility’s biodiesel processing capacity expands, McElroy expects that future additions to his fleet of vehicles will be biodiesel-compatible.

McElroy says the beauty of the program is that biodiesel fuel can be produced for less than what’s paid for retail or wholesale diesel, resulting in substantial fuel cost savings.

It even has begun developing products from the waste material left over from biodiesel processing, including soap, which then is distributed to local schools used in recycling education efforts aimed at the public.

Inspired by its local utility, the city of Daphne also has developed a biodiesel processing capability, using waste vegetable oil to power part of its municipal fleet.

In recognition of its efforts, Daphne Utility recently received the Alabama League of Municipalities 2007 Municipal Achievement Award.

Hall, who serves on Gov. Bob Riley’s Alternative Energy Committee, describes the efforts in Hoover, Daphne and other municipalities throughout Alabama as the beginning of a “cultural tidal wave” that will increase in magnitude as more public and private entities — municipalities, companies, universities and schools, among many other groups — develop alternative fuel initiatives of their own.

But as Hall stresses, biodiesel is only one option among many suitable for weaning Americans off foreign energy dependency.

“As I’ve stressed time and again, the solutions will be many,” Hall says. “We’re not going to have one type of plant serving as the panacea — people and organizations are working on a whole lot of things.

“By its very nature, the quest for energy self-sufficiency will be based on a whole lot of ideas culminating in a lot of different technologies."

Hall also cites efforts under way at the state level to edge Alabamians down the alternative fuels path. Earlier this year, for example, Gov. Bob Riley announced that the state’s fleet of vehicles would switch to ethanol. The state also is spending $324,000 to install a 12,000-gallon E-85 fuel tank and two pumps at the state Motor Pool, which has more than 207 vehicles available for state employees for in-state trips.

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