The 'FOG' is Lifting

San Francisco is on its way to becoming an even brighter shade of green by starting a program to collect the waste fat, oil and grease (FOG) that clog city sewers and cost taxpayers millions, and turning it into biodiesel to fuel the city's fleet.
By Kris Bevill | April 15, 2008
Residents of San Francisco, which is occasionally called "Fog City," are accustomed to having variations of thick, white mist roll through their neighborhoods at all times of the year. But there's another kind of "fog" in San Francisco-fat, oil and grease (FOG)-that has been clogging city sewers for years and had became such a problem that the city needed to take aggressive measures to combat it.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission estimates that 50 percent of the city's sewer-related emergency calls are in response to backups caused by grease blockages.

Removing those blockages costs taxpayers $3.5 million each year. "It's like fat in human arteries," says Karri Ving, SFPUC's wastewater division biofuels coordinator. "The FOG clings to [drain] walls and forms hard-to-remove buildup." Restaurants and other food-service establishments illegally dumping waste oil from fryers into drains are usually the culprits.

To help rid the city of clogged sewers, a city-funded program called SFGreasecycle was launched in November 2007 to collect used cooking oil from food-service establishments free of charge. "We could have just dealt with the problem by constantly releasing sewer blockages and addressing overflow issues, but we decided to take a preventative approach to the matter and actually work with restaurants to keep them from pouring oil down the drain," Ving says. "We offer free collection of waste cooking oil to any food service business in the city. They get to dispose of their oil for free and don't have a financial obligation to do the right thing." The program has been a good investment for the city thus far, costing $1.3 million per year, which is less than half the cost of annual grease-related sewer repairs.

SFPUC General Manager Susan Leal says the program can be considered a success for two other reasons. "It has improved our wastewater processing and collection system," she says. "We've already seen results with fewer blockages in our sewers. The bigger effect we see is the fact that we are taking charge of what would have been a problem, turning it into a win for us and also serving as a model for other cities."

The oil collection service is just one aspect of the city's master plant. The goal is to create a closed-loop system and become entirely self-sufficient, Ving says. At the same time that the SFGreasecycle program was started, the city began fueling its 1,500-vehicle fleet with B20. The biodiesel is made from soy oil squeezed from soybeans produced in the Midwest. As fleet operators and mechanics become more accustomed to biodiesel, the city plans to gradually raise the biodiesel in its fuel from B20 to B100. The city's fleet uses about 6 million gallons of diesel each year; this year 1.2 million gallons of that fuel will be biodiesel. Ving says they are working on creating a sustainable local biodiesel supply.

The city wants to switch to local producers in 2009. Ideally, those producers will create biodiesel from the city's collected waste oil and sell it back for use in San Francisco's fleet.

Participation Level
The city's master plan hinges on the success of the SFGreasecycle program. According to Ving, 1.2 million to 1.4 million gallons of waste oil is produced by San Francisco eateries each year. Of the 2,600 food-service establishments in the city, about 250 of them are participating in the grease recycling program. Ving says restaurants, museums, churches, synagogues and even a ship, the Vessel Cape Horn, have signed on to participate in SFGreasecycle through word-of-mouth advertising. "We're not rushing into signing every single establishment," Ving says. "We want to make sure we do it right and honor our commitments."

One of the first restaurants to enlist in the program was Puccini and Pinetti, in downtown San Francisco. Executive Chef Keira Moritz says they called to sign up before the program had even begun. She can't think of anything negative to say about it. "Right now they're a little snippy with us because we keep moving the drums around back there," she laughs. "But it's going well. We like the boys who pick up the grease. They rock." The city provided the restaurant with four 55-gallon collection drums and empties them twice a month. According to Moritz, the restaurant generates 10 gallons of used fryer oil every day. She says the hospitality group that owns Puccini and Pinetti likes to take part in environmentally friendly practices. Before signing up for the city's program, the restaurant was paying $125 every month for a recycling company to haul the used oil away. By participating in SFGreasecycle, they still feel good about what happens to their used oil and they save money.

Farshid Asaddehghan, owner of Santorini restaurant on O'Farrell Street, recently signed up because he likes the thought of helping the environment, recycling and giving back to the community. Before participating in SFGreasecycle, he had to pay up to $150 a month to dispose of used fryer oil. Now, a biodiesel-fueled city collection truck stops by once every two weeks to empty the 55-gallon barrel of used oil behind the restaurant. The no-cost removal is "just another reason" to participate, says Asaddehghan, who thinks it would be worthwhile even if it wasn't free. There are no contracts for restaurant owners to sign, so they can call and cancel at any time. Asaddehghan believes most restaurants in his neighborhood are taking advantage of the free collection program. "Everyone in San Francisco is environmentally friendly," he says. "We're a small city but have lots of people and we all like to do what we can to help out."

Once SFGreasecycle was launched, other grease collection companies began to offer free pickup, but restaurants still choose to sign on with the city, Ving says. "They see the trucks driving down the street and they want those trucks to be running on biodiesel rather than fossil fuels," she says. "They get the big picture. We want to keep our waste that has a high organic energy component right here in the city and utilize as much of it as possible and restaurant managers get that."

Ving says the current focus of the program is to educate and reach out to area restaurants suspected of illegally dumping used oil into the city's drainage system. Restaurants that sign up are given advice on how to keep used cooking oil in good condition for reuse. "We want the oil to be as close to virgin oil as possible and restaurants have been really receptive," she says. Properly stored oil results in a near 1:1 ratio of oil to biodiesel. However, Ving says that even if the oil is not in prime condition it can still be utilized. "Because our collection station is located within our sewage treatment plant, we're able to use every drop of that material for some form of bioenergy. If it's not made into biodiesel, it can be discharged into our digesters for methane production which helps offset the amount of electricity we need to pull from the grid."

Producers Benefit
Tellurian Biodiesel Inc. is one of the city's local biodiesel suppliers. Joe Gershen, vice president of sales and marketing, says his company is also working on producing biodiesel from brown grease collected by the city. Tellurian recently acquired the technology to convert this low-cost feedstock into biodiesel and will be involved with a production pilot plant colocated with San Francisco's waste treatment facility.

The California Energy Commission awarded San Francisco a $1 million grant to develop a brown grease biodiesel demonstration facility. "We're very excited about this plant," Ving says. "The state asked us to develop a demo plant to show that it's possible for any sewage treatment plant to-with minimal upgrade-turn into an energy recovery facility." Ving says the goal is to run a successful ASTM-grade biodiesel facility for four years. Grant money will be matched by the SFPUC and private engineering partners.

There are several local producers who purchase used oil from the city and are potential suppliers for the future closed-loop system. Ving says producers currently pay the city 30 cents to $1.50 per gallon depending on the quality of the oil. Kumar Plocher, president of Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, Calif., says his company occasionally purchases from the city to supplement the waste oil it collects from its own clientele. "When we need it, it's a nice alternative to buying from renderers," he says. The prospect of the city buying back the 99.9 percent biodiesel produced at Yokayo is intriguing to Plocher. "We're a small company," he says. "If we started contracting with a city like San Francisco-pretty soon we wouldn't have any biodiesel to sell to anyone else." Although the possibility exists, Plocher wouldn't speculate, adding that the saturation of biodiesel producers in the area makes companies secretive about future plans.

Residential Support
Two trial residential collection events were held during the 2007 holiday season to coincide with the official launch of SFGreasecycle. The first event was held after Thanksgiving and consisted of one drop-off site at a Costco grocery store. Ving says the city collected 7,000 pounds of used cooking oil that day. "People brought it in Mason jars, coffee cans-whatever they had," she says. "It was a shocking, wonderful success."

After the popular holiday drop-off events, a collection site was established at the San Francisco household hazardous waste facility. The site continues to bring in about 250 gallons of used oil every month, Ving says. "Residents want to do the right thing," she says. "They just want it to be a little easier." There is only one other used oil collection site available to residents. However, the city wants to increase that number and plans to have 12 sites in operation by October 2008, Ving says. A residential program is essential to the success of SFGreasecycle because it will reduce the grease that clogs city sewers and provide for more biodiesel production to fuel city vehicles, she says. Residents generate about the same amount of used cooking oil each year as restaurants do, which is why their participation is so important. It all adds up to the ultimate goal of having a closed-loop system that will stand as an example for municipalities around the world, Ving says. "Our intention is to show that any community in the world can import less fossil fuel into their community and export less waste," she says.

Kris Bevill is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 373-0636.
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