Small Scale, Big Impact

Ned Nazzaro believes that starting small-scale biodiesel operations is the best way to deal with the volatile soy market. The entrepreneur and cofounder of Big White Tiger built his business around biofuels because of their environmental benefits and positive impact on the country's dependence on foreign oil.
By Bryan Sims | October 16, 2007
The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, have gone down in U.S. history as a time when Americans felt the most vulnerable. The tragedy caused the country to reevaluate its homeland security, reaffirm its values and to test its unified mettle in retaliation against the foreign enemies who comitted the deplorable act of terrorism. For Ned Nazzaro, the events that occurred on that day were a horrific display of international hatred toward our country and another reason for Americans to curb their reliance on foreign oil, he says. "I live a couple blocks from the Pentagon and saw the plane fly over, so I like the idea of anything to cut our dependence on foreign oil," he tells Biodiesel Magazine.

In 2005, Nazzaro and his wife Jean co-created a small company called Big White Tiger (BWT), an environmental consulting firm that sells ethanol and biodiesel products and services provided by biofuels additive companies such as FPPF Chemical Company Inc., Lucas Oil Products Inc. and Soyclean. The business is small but Nazzaro believes his Arlington, Va.-based company has taken a giant step toward decreasing the United States' dependence on foreign oil and heightening environmental awareness. The decision to start small was pivotal to Nazzaro's long-term business goals, he says. "A year ago, we almost built a biodiesel plant," says Nazzaro, who is the director of operations for BWT. "Thank God we didn't. That's what has kept us in business. We're a slow, steady, growing company and we truly believe in [biodiesel]." When BWT considered building its large-scale biodiesel plant the price of soybean oil was in the $20 range. When it increased to about $30, Nazzaro didn't think he could compete with the economics of scale that other large biodiesel producers faced.

Nazzaro put his environmental and altruistic philosophies into action in June when BWT completed a small-scale biodiesel project transaction with the new Pocahontas State Correctional Center in Pocahontas, Va. The facility agreed to install an on-site 160-gallon mega ester biodiesel reactor unit to convert cooking oils and grease supplied by the prison's cafeteria into biodiesel. The biodiesel is blended with diesel fuel to fill the fuel tanks of the prison's truck fleet and farm equipment such as lawn tractors and backhoes used for landscaping tasks. BWT consulted and negotiated the purchase of the $4,000 unit, which was supplied by Huntsville, Texas-based Evolution Biodiesel LLC, a small-scale biodiesel unit manufacturer.

The biodiesel unit has an initial capacity of 40 gallons and is equipped with two 40-gallon expansion tanks so the prison can increase its capacity at any time. The prison opted to produce biodiesel because it's an environmentally friendly fuel and to save money on cooking oil and grease disposal, says Gary Shrader, building and grounds superintendent for the Pocahontas Correctional Center. The prison also installed the unit to provide a model for other correctional facilities to follow. "We wanted to be on the cutting edge," he says. "Here at Pocahontas State, we not only want to be a shining example to the Virginia DOC (Department of Corrections), but we also want to lead nationwide." Shrader, who has worked for the Virginia DOC for four years, had never seen a biodiesel project of this nature in a correctional facility. Employing small biodiesel operations like Nazzaro has with the Pocahontas State Correctional Center could be a growing trend, and a way for novice producers to have a stake in the U.S. biodiesel industry.

Small Start, Big Contribution
Nazzaro chose to start small because of volatile soy prices. All too often, large-scale biodiesel producers strike out with high expectations only to fall short of their goals because of poor preparation and risk management, or just being priced out of the market by high soy prices, he says. Nazzaro intends to continue working with other small-scale biodiesel unit manufacturers like Evolution Biodiesel on future projects. "It just makes sense," he says. "I know [biodiesel] has a long way to go in terms of development. We're working with a lot of good people and we're finding out quickly there are a lot of good people in this industry. It's working out wonderfully. We want to grow slow and steady. That's our nature."

Supplying small-scale biodiesel units for projects like the Pocahontas State Correctional Center isn't new to Evolution Biodiesel, says John Davis, marketing and sales manager. The company has been around for about two years assisting customers who have projects similar to Nazzaro's model. "We really see ourselves opening the door for folks who want to just kind of get their toe wet," Davis says. "Right now, there's a lot of information out there, but there are not a lot of folks that are really ingrained into using it. If you're making [biodiesel], people step back because they want to know more and see how it's made. It's a neat opportunity to kind of get people started."

In addition to supplying mega ester reactor units for producers who have a ready supply of feedstocks such as cafeteria grease and oils, Evolution Biodiesel also works with soybean crushing unit manufacturers like Insta-Pro International in Des Moines, Iowa. In those cases, the company purchases the crushing unit and packages it with the biodiesel reactors and sells them to farmers. The units provide an investment opportunity for farmers looking to incorporate biodiesel into their operations, according to Davis. "We feel that these are the folks who need it the absolute most, and they're the people who can do it too," he says. "We're really trying to evolve what we're doing and work with the heart of America."

To make its process more effective, the Pocahontas prison may collect discarded kitchen grease and oils from other prisons in the area, depending on how the current unit performs. According to Shrader, the prison has about five feedstock candidates in mind. "If we do approach the capacity limit on the biodiesel reactor then there could be a possibility for expansion," Shrader says. "That would just depend on the other institutes and how much waste they produce."

No Regrets
Nazzaro and the Pocahontas Correctional Center are satisfied with the biodiesel mega ester reactor. The unit met both parties' goals of serving as a cost-savings plan for the prison and providing health and environmental benefits for the prison staff and inmates.

Nazzaro has received a great deal of support from the state of Virginia, which is a firm advocate of sustainable renewable fuels and encourages small-scale producers to pursue innovative "green" projects. Virginia is also working on a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard mandating that 17 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources such as biomass, wind, solar and other sources by 2020, and the state encourages the use of energy efficiency programs.

Nazzaro's self-sustaining, simplified approach has proven to be a viable niche. As for long-term goals, he intends to expand his small-scale biodiesel endeavors to other prisons, in addition to universities and restaurants. He is working to facilitate two more projects-one at a university and one in another prison, both of which he couldn't disclose at press time. "I guess we're more like facilitators than anything else," Nazzaro says. "Our intent is to develop relationships that allow us to trade products wherever and whenever it's needed. It's less expensive fuel, it's less expensive to pay to get rid of the grease and it's also good for the environment." n

Bryan Sims is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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