Newport Biodiesel Takes R.I. Back to the Future

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — Newport Biodiesel takes us back to the future. The very first diesel engines built by Rudolf Diesel in 1893 were designed to burn vegetable oil. Today, through a simple chemical process that uses small amounts of lye and methane, waste oil from deep fryers across eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island and western Massachusetts is transformed into what company chairman Bob Morton called “the best fuel on the planet.”

Newport Biodiesel, a for-profit renewable energy company created in 2008, was the primary focus of an all-day conference May 3 organized by Wendy Lucht, the URI-based coordinator of the Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition, a coalition within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Program.

“The idea is to talk about sustainability in the big picture and how biodiesel fits in,” Morton said.

The event began with tours of the company’s production facility and office off Connell Highway and then moved to Ochre Court at Salve University, where participants heard from a number of speakers, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Marion Gold, director of the state Office of Energy Resources.

The company’s business model is built entirely around recycling waste vegetable oil from restaurants and cafeterias, more than 1,500 of them, and turning that oil into a fuel for car, trucks and ships and into heating oil for furnaces. Three tanker trucks specially equipped with vacuums visit 18-20 restaurants daily to collect 1,200 gallons each of used vegetable oil, according to Chris Benzak, managing partner and designated tour guide.

The unprocessed oil is then heated in a series of tanks to remove all water and moisture. What Benzak and his crew euphemistically call “schmutz” also is removed and sent to an anaerobic digester in Maine, where this “waste” product becomes food for microorganisms that produce methane that powers electric generators connected to the grid.

“We are a zero-waste facility,” said Benzak, who noted that he would prefer to see the schmutz used in a Rhode Island digester closer to their processing facility. “We want to keep the loop as a close as possible.”

Glycerine, another byproduct removed from vegetable oil during processing, is sold for use in soap.

Prior to distributing their biofuel, Newport Biodiesel thoroughly tests the product for quality. Only then is the 100 percent biodiesel blended with petroleum-based diesel to form four primary blends: B99 (99 percent biodiesel), B50 (50 percent biodiesel), B20 (20 percent biodiesel) and B5 (5 percent biodiesel).

Most of biodiesel produced by the company is sold as B20 “winter blend,” according to Jim Malloy of T.H. Malloy & Sons, a Cumberland-based home heating oil distribution company that delivers the fuel to tanks across the region.

There are a range of benefits to using biodiesel aside from supporting a small local business, according to Malloy, whose company has switched more than 4,000 customers to a biodiesel blend.

He said there is a decrease in maintenance with such a switch. “Instead of a servicing every year we are now doing it every two years,” Malloy said.

There also are environmental benefits. Use of biodiesel in place of diesel results in an 86 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, according to Morton. In addition, there is no ultra-fine or fine-particulate matter produced by burning biodiesel, both of which can cause heart and lung problems. Also, as a result of “super-high lubricity,” trucks run quieter and there is “no more black smoke.”

One conference attendee related a story from Keene State College in New Hampshire. After a summer of using 100 percent biodiesel in the college’s fleet of maintenance vehicles, employees had reported less headaches and threatened a wholesale revolt if the college reverted to petroleum-based fuels.

Room for growth

There is considerable room for biodiesel growth. Three keys to continued growth were cited by Morton: a similar price point to diesel; an adequate source of waste vegetable oil); and the stability of government support.

Some 20 million gallons of home heating oil are used in New England annually, according to Morton. In Rhode Island, only 1 percent is biodiesel. Growth into that market is only limited by the company’s capacity to collect waste oil, Benzak said.     

“Sustainability is profitability,” said Benzak, quoting Rhode Island’s composting guru, Mike Merner of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. “We built this from the ground up ourselves. This was a concrete slab in 2007.”

Six years ago, Newport Biodiesel produced it’s first 200 gallons, when founder Nat Harris decided to take the energy needs of his family into his own hands. This year Newport Biodiesel, led by a group of six owners, will be produce more than 80,000 gallons of fuel a month.

“We touch thousands of homes and businesses in Rhode Island every day,” Benzak said.

Less green gases

Gold, who is crafting a comprehensive 25-year energy plan for Rhode Island that is heavy on renewables, spoke about the growing pressure to lower greenhouse gases. Biodiesel is part of the answer, she said.

That point was echoed by Morton.

“Climate change is the driving issue right now,” he said.  “Fifty years from now, people will ask why didn’t you tackle it? They won’t remember the economy.”

For his part, Whitehouse spoke of the need for Congress to renew tax credits for renewable fuel sources.

“Each year it’s a battle,” he said. “I have to threaten to stop the Senate to get those credits.”

The senator called for a three-pronged strategy on climate change: ramp up regulatory forces against polluters by levying fines on violators; create a “green” super PAC to support election campaigns; and gather the clans of unlikely allies who can work together stop the rise of atmospheric carbon, including military and intelligence agencies, insurance companies, corporations, the faith community, and fishing and hunting groups.

These groups, he said, were like divisions on a battlefield, but without field marshals and an allied command.