Posting in Energy
Thanks to a contraption called Vegawatt, a handful of restaurants--including at a university and military base--are using old cooking oil for electricity and hot water.
Last month, Billy’s Chowder House in Wells, Maine, started using the 6,000 gallons of waste vegetable oil it produces annually to produce its electricity and heat its water. The restaurant uses a Vegawatt waste vegetable oil generator, created by James Peret, president and CEO of Owl Power Company in Westport, Mass.
The refrigerator-sized Vegawatt produces renewable on-site power and hot water from used vegetable oil—up to 120 gallons a week. The system delivers electricity in the same way as a solar electric panel. I talked with Peret about how Vegawatt works. Excerpts of our conversation are below.
How did you get into the cooking oil business?
I graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a mechanical engineering degree. I got a job at Insight Product Development, where I got practice in how to take a crazy idea and turn it into something.
I had started looking into biodiesel and was turned off by the danger of it--people burn their garages down every year trying to make biodiesel for their cars. And not only is it dangerous, it’s labor intensive. Biodiesel requires the use of caustic chemicals and fossil fuel products and produces a significant proportion of glycerol.
So I went from there to straight vegetable oil.
I had the epiphany—I could develop this product that could fit in the back of a truck and could pump heat into the restaurant, offsetting their hot water cost. So the vegetable oil is replacing natural gas and electricity. And there’s none of the inherent losses associated with grid transmission—up to 25 percent of that energy is lost in transit—because we’re right behind the restaurant. Traditional power plants are maybe stretching the truth a little bit when they talk about efficiency—most are 35 percent efficient. My little box is up to 93 percent efficient.
So we’re displacing electricity from the grid, natural gas from the environment and saving a lot of petroleum fuel from not hauling it around.
What’s the current situation with restaurants and their waste oil?
Health code says you have to dispose of it in a safe manner. It’s unsafe to pour it down a drain. Lots of money is dedicated to cleaning out what’s called FOG--fats, oils and greases. Some restaurants were at one point getting 25 cents a gallon. Now most restaurants pay to have their waste oil removed.
How much oil might restaurants go through in a month?
Fine fish restaurants might consume 60, 80, 100 gallons a week. More typical non-chain restaurants: 40 to 60 gallons. And 120 to 200 gallons a week for a supermarket or college/university.
How big is your Vegawatt, and what is the cost for restaurants?
It’s about the size of a two-door commercial freezer, or two soda vending machines. The unit will pay for itself in two to four years. The savings generated from the smallest one will be $7,000 a year. From the largest, over $25,000. And with all the federal and state incentives, the payback could be as little as six months.
How many have you sold?
How long does the process take?
Turning it on is just turning a switch. Pouring oil into the drum will be recognized by the system. It will turn the engine on, clean and refine the fuel, consume all the oil that’s deposited and shut the engine down. The oil can come straight from the fryers.
How does vegetable oil energy compare to other types of alternative energy?
Comparing it to the more well-known green energy sources—wind and solar--our 5-kilowatt system produces power 24/7. Whereas solar only produces peak power at noon and nothing at night. So our system is comparable to a 30-kilowatt solar panel which retails for half a million dollars. We have dramatic savings because we operate at a small level continuously.
The economy of scale is small. Basically everyone tries to build a bigger system, but with oil, if you build a bigger system, you get bigger overhead and negative benefits. By being a small co-generator on site, it’s very efficient. If we were 100 times larger, we’d have trucks, the trucks would have drivers and we’d have a very large central combustion unit.
American University is using Vegawatt. Read about it here: AU: One of nation's greenest campuses, thanks to cooking oil and more.
May 17, 2011
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The problem I see with vegawatt tech is that its not efficient as a business process. It makes far more sense to have a collection company process it and sell in bulk than to try to operate used cooking oil as a cottage industry. http://www.hulseyenvironmental.com/commercial-industrial/yellow-grease/
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I remember long and painful discussions about the subject matter in Europe several years ago when legislation was passed to ban what is still possible in the United States. Europeans have to give waste oil to the public waste collectors to allow for recycling simply because it was found that private re-use as here may cause the release of dioxine into the air, which would be a real health hasard. When doing so, never use recycled and be very careful with processed oil to avoid the problem.
What did he do to dispose of the oil before this? I agree it is good for him to save money for his company in an environmentally friendly manner, but you really cannot claim it is helping the environment MORE if he is substituting a business cost savings for another method of sustainable reuse?
Read about this a few years ago... glad to see they're still around and moving forward with it. I guess you can call 12 units (in the wild) a success? Hopefully this catches on. Would like to see a contract with a major chain; McD's, Yum restaurants, Red Lobster? etc.
Depending on the area of the country, WVO is landfilled, processed and sold as animal feed additive, converted to biodiesel, burned in cargo ships with their bunker oil, or sold to cosmetics and soap companies. The advantage this product has is that besides offering a cost savings, it reduces electrical/nat gas consumption, and it prevents the use of gasoline for the transportation of the WVO. If this device is even moderately efficient and clean burning, it is more sustainable use of the WVO than the alternatives.