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Alabama's Going Green

Posted: Mar 06, 2008

Holden Caulfield wanted to know where all the ducks go in winter. Ann (Andie MacDowell) in Sex, Lies, and Videotape was obsessed with what they were going to do with all the garbage. I wanted to know what we are doing with all that used cooking oil. Fortunately, I did not have to search very far. Several cities in Alabama already have programs in place for collecting used cooking oil and turning it into fuel—biodiesel that can power city trucks and large machinery.

What to do with used cooking oil may not be an issue for those of us who rarely fry anything, but it is a huge issue for cities in the south whose restaurants depend on fried dishes for the bulk of their sales. Larger restaurants can contract with a company to take off the used oil, but residents and smaller mom-and-pop operations tend to put it in the garbage or pour it down the drain. The result can clog sewage systems and fill up landfills with the mess. The technology now exists to turn that used cooking oil into a biodiesel, and several Alabama cities are already working on ways to recycle the oil through the city and use the ensuing biodiesel in their city and municipal vehicles.

The city of Daphne in Baldwin County is the poster child for the biodiesel project. Daphne recently purchased a BioPro 190 as a show piece for their oil recycling program. Citizens of Daphne are encouraged to drop off their waste vegetable oil at designated drop off stations placed throughout the city. The oil is collected, filtered, and then processed into Biodiesel by the city in their brand new BioPro 190. This program was so effective that they'll be taking it on the road on a tour of several other municipalities in Alabama to show just how easy it is to create a city wide oil recycling program. They are not only recycling the waste oil which may have ended up in their sewer system, they also make biodiesel to power the city trucks and recycle the glycerin to make soap which they then sell.

The city of Montgomery hopes to save $100,000 a year by making biodiesel fuel just from KFC cooking oil alone. Agriculture & Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks and Montgomery’s Mayor Bobby Bright announced a partnership to turn used cooking oils into biodiesel fuel for city vehicles last fall. February 12 marked the grand opening of the newly constructed Center for Alternative Fuels Biodiesel Production facility.

If you know Montgomery, you know about Mary B's Buffet and its famous fried chicken. The restaurant goes through 350 pounds of cooking oil every week. Rick Monrie, owner of Mary B’s, said, "The city comes by every couple of times a week and sucks it out and puts it in their truck." The new biodiesel production facility takes the oil from local restaurants and turns it into something biodiesel. Instead of thick smoke, the new fuel smells a lot like French fries and burns cleaner
In the spring of 2007, the city of Hoover made a 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 that the city made its first batch of biodiesel from waste vegetable oil and used it in two city vehicles. The city was able to process about 55 gallons of biodiesel at one time. Hoover plans to expand the production and use of biodiesel. No customizing of the vehicles is required to run the alternative fuel.

The city of Gadsden in Northeast Alabama is the latest city to get on the bio-fuel bandwagon. The Center for Bioenergy and Bioproduction at Auburn University is helping Gadsden set up residential collection points for home cooking oil to be easily collected. Similar efforts are under way in other cities, including Florence.

Food and fuel (and of course, water) are the precious commodities of every society. We not only require food/fuel for our bodies, but we also need fuel for our homes, our cars, our machines—the technology that supports our lives. Sometimes these two needs are at odds with one another.

I have spent the past month looking at what I see as a concerted effort to resolve this dilemma. First I asked Dr. Susan Parker, a longtime friend and hardworking member of the Alabama Public Service Commission, what Alabama is doing at the state level to develop renewable, sustainable energy sources. What she said was most encouraging. First of all there is a package of bills before the current legislature to establish and promote energy efficiency programs. Several of these bills provide substantial change mechanisms and funding sources for the establishment of both EE (Energy Efficiency) and renewable energy initiatives.

Secondly, the Public Service Commission is launching a statewide Consumer Education Initiative not only to educate the people of Alabama about the necessity of conserving our resources but to make available practical instructions for doing so.

I applaud these lofty aims, but I wanted to know what is going on in the trenches. According to Parker, a pulp and paper company, Boise Cascade in Jackson Alabama, Washington County, is recycling wood chips which they obtain from limbs and other waste when they harvest the trees. They are able to produce about 20% of their electricity from this renewable source, saving the company over $1M a year. Also, other paper companies are generating their own power as well. Parker added that most experts think wood chips and wood waste is the best bio-mass source for the south. She said “We have plenty of wood waste, and wind—which could be a negative factor—is not a problem because we do not have consistent winds at 20mph or more.”

Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy and International Paper have undertaken a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect ecologically important forests, rivers and streams in 10 southern states. The Nature Conservancy will acquire more than 218,000 acres in the largest private land conservation project in the history of the southern United States. Partners include state governments, federal agencies, the Department of Defense and timber investment entities. This acquisition protects 14,119 acres of the Perdido River Corridor including 15 miles of river frontage on the highest quality remaining free-flowing blackwater river in the southern coastal plain. The high-quality forests along the river corridor include slash pine flatwoods, pitcher plant seepage bogs, upland longleaf pine forests, and riparian Atlantic white cedar swamps, rare this far west in the Gulf Coastal Plain. The lands along the Perdido River are utilized by hundreds of species of neo-tropical migratory birds as stopover habitat for feeding and resting as the move through Alabama's coastal area each spring and fall. The Perdido River Corridor covers 120,000 acres of significant blackwater watershed. Comprised of the headwaters, forested and marsh wetlands, bogs and long-leaf pine communities, the river flows for 84 miles into one of the Gulf Coast's least developed back areas, the Perdido Bay. (Photo of Perdido River is courtesy of Beth Maynor Young of The Nature Conservancy.)

So, that is a just bit about fuel for our machines, but what about fuel for our bodies? Alabama is working to make locavore a household word. Check this space for more on how Alabama is going green with organic, sustainable, and renewable farming. A good place to start is with Grow Alabama and The Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network (ASAN), a network of farmers, consumers, and agriculture-related organizations, all committed to promoting sustainable agriculture in Alabama. ASAN states: “ We are working to improve the situation of farmers in the state and to provide the state’s consumers with fresh local products. ASAN members believe that by providing educational opportunities for Alabama's farmers and ranchers and by educating both consumers and agricultural professionals about sustainable agriculture, we can improve the lives of small farmers and rural and urban communities and make a positive contribution to the state’s environment and health. We define ‘Sustainable Agriculture’ as farming that supports families and communities while conserving natural resources.”

This is the first dispatch in a series of blogs about the south and the issue of environmental responsibility. In the next few weeks, I will explore the ways in which we Alabamians are making our state more eco-friendly. I welcome your comments and suggestions.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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michaelbuffalo says...

Excellent piece, Penne. As a fellow naturalist, it hurts my heart to see what humans have done to our beloved planet. All we can do now is GET INVOLVED and try to make changes for a better earth. I applaud your spreading of the good news in Bamalama.

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It breaks my heart every time we go down to the creek. My daughter is 2 years old, and to her, water is something to play with, not something to be afraid of. The most natural thing in the world for a child is to dip her hands into the wetness and bring it to her mouth. How can I explain that the water, which is supposed to bring life, is more than likely dangerous to life. To a day when children (and adults) drink from streams once again.....

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