Biodiesel in the Golden Gate City

San Francisco has taken the lead when it comes to creating a communitywide, multifaceted biodiesel initiative. The city serves as an example of what is possible when leaders and community-based grassroots organizations work together to better their community.
By Erin Voegele | January 15, 2009
San Francisco's biodiesel industry has made great strides over the past several years. The city implemented a B20 mandate for the city fleet, started a successful waste grease collection program and has plans to build an innovative biodiesel production facility that will use brown grease as a feedstock. In the private sector, Darling International Inc. plans to build a biodiesel plant at the Port of San Francisco. At the same time, local cooperatives and nonprofits are stepping up their efforts to supply the community with biodiesel, while spearheading advocacy and educational initiatives.

Projects and Initiatives
SFGreasecycle, the city's highly successful grease collection program, was launched in November 2007. The program is housed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's wastewater division. The SFPUC collects used cooking grease from San Francisco-based grease generators, including restaurants, schools and hotels free of charge. Currently, more than 500 restaurants participate in the program, says Karri Ving, SFPUC's biofuels coordinator. The waste cooking oil is hand collected by city truck drivers and brought to the SFPUC's transfer station, where it is heated, settled and filtered. The grease is then sold at discount to four local biodiesel manufacturers in rotation.

Restaurants that participate in the program are donating a valuable commodity to their community, Ving says, which will help the city reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. "Sometimes the cooking oil is worth money and sometimes it isn't," she says. "We want that material regardless of its market value. We want all of that grease to stay here in San Francisco to benefit San Franciscans."

In addition to benefiting the community through supplying low-cost feedstocks to local biodiesel producers, the program also helps curb improper disposal of grease by restaurants. Ving says the SFPUC spends $3.5 million annually to dislodge fats and greases from city sewers and to address grease-related sewage backups. "The best way to address those problems is to divert that material right at the source, before it enters our sewer system," she says.

The next step for SFGreasecycle is the development of a residential grease recycling program. The residential program will include the establishment of grease collection sites within the city's household hazardous waste drop-off locations. Temporary post-holiday drop-off locations are also being established at local grocery stores. "Over Thanksgiving, we collected more than 450 gallons of waste cooking oil," Ving says. In the future, there is also the potential to expand recycling programs regionally.

In addition, the SFPUC is developing a demonstration-scale biodiesel plant that will convert brown grease into ASTM-quality biodiesel. The SFPUC received a $1 million grant from the California Energy Commission in May 2008 to assist with the project. The facility will be built at SFPUC's Oceanside Sewage Treatment Plant.

Construction on the project was scheduled to begin in January, and is expected to be complete in June. The plant will feature two phases of production, Ving says. "The first phase will concentrate on the trap grease, which starts as 97 percent water," she says. "The second phase will convert the substance into ASTM biodiesel. When we bring that pilot plant on line, we will be producing 300 gallons of ASTM quality biodiesel per day out of approximately 10,000 gallons of trap grease."

The brown grease the plant will utilize is a true waste product with a negative market value, Ving says. "We are handling a marginal material that no one else wants, while showcasing developing technologies," she says. "For me that's the role of government."

The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a tool kit and model that other municipalities can replicate at their water treatment facilities. "San Francisco is taking a leadership role in utilizing waste materials and bringing emerging technologies to market in a way that is not dependent on venture capitalism," Ving says. "A public utility will be able to absorb that trial and error period longer than a private company may be able to."

A private company is developing another biodiesel facility within the city of San Francisco. Darling International plans to construct a 10 MMgy production facility near Pier 92 on the Port of San Francisco. The company has operated a rendering facility at the port since 1966. Darling International's biodiesel plant will be adjacent to the company's animal fats and waste vegetable oil rending facility. "That's a pretty big thing, to have 10 million gallons of biodiesel made right here on the doorstep of the city," says Eric Smith, director of Green Depot, a nonprofit that promotes the use of biodiesel.

Community's Project Development Involvement
Many in San Francisco credit the Biodiesel Task Force with helping to bring public and private entities together to develop these projects and make biodiesel accessible to the community. The task force is made up of 17 members, seven are voting members and 10 nonvoting members. The seven voting members are appointed by the city's Board of Supervisors and represent the biodiesel community, such as fuel station owners, fleet operators and consumers. The nonvoting members are appointed to the task force by the heads of 10 San Francisco city departments and agencies.

The purpose of the task force is to facilitate the creation of a biodiesel fueling infrastructure that will provide the public with access to biodiesel and biodiesel-blended fuels. To do this, the task force recommends legislative actions and citywide strategies to the Board of Supervisors, including the development of incentives and ways to streamline the permitting process for biodiesel fueling stations.

"The Biodiesel Task Force has been an incredibly positive forum for the community to be able to get issues addressed directly through government officials," says Benjamin Jordan, a civil engineer who works with the People's Fuel Co-op and the Biofuel Recycling Co-op. "What the task force has done is tried to start removing the institutional barriers that were in place." This includes setting the stage for Mayor Gavin Newsom's B20 mandate for the city fleet.

According to Smith, the task force is also interested in ensuring that only high-quality biodiesel reaches consumers. "In the real estate market it's location, location, location," he says. "For the biodiesel world, it's quality, quality, quality." Although the quality of biodiesel sold in San Francisco has generally been high, it's important to make sure the city continues to receive high-quality fuel in the future, he says.

At the community level, nonprofits, such as Green Depot, and cooperatives are working to make biodiesel available to the public. "Green Depot is the home of all the other biodiesel nonprofit organizations in San Francisco," Smith says. Many of these organizations serve as user groups for retail biodiesel sales.

"To sell biodiesel in California, you have to get a variance and you have to be a member of a biodiesel user group," Smith says. This is because biodiesel is considered an experimental fuel. The user group collects data on the sale, including the make and year of the vehicle and the kind of fuel that was purchased. That data is sent to the state, Smith says. Some groups offer the fuel at fixed locations, and others offer bulk fuel delivery or mobile fueling services.

In addition to providing consumers with access to the fuel, some co-ops, such as the San Francisco Biofuel Co-op, aim to serve members of the public by providing education and advocacy services. Others, including the People's Fuel Co-op, work to benefit fleet managers and fuel distributors. "People's Fuel, along with Community Fuels, City College of San Francisco and the San Francisco Department of the Environment are working together on a grant that is creating training curriculum for three types of biodiesel users," Jordan says.

These include those who use the product in their own vehicles, fleet managers and distributors.

The Future of Biodiesel
With the various community- and city-based projects in development, it seems the biodiesel industry in San Francisco will continue to grow. Ving credits Newsom for much of the city's progress. "It has been the leadership from the top that has given us the momentum to get agencies working together in ways that they are not used to," she says.

In addition to city leadership, many also credit San Francisco community members. "San Francisco is an early adaptor city," Jordan says. "We just have political support for it.

People in San Francisco are environmentally conscious and are ready for these types of programs." Over the past five years, he has seen community interest in biodiesel grow and change. Five years ago many people didn't know what it was, he says. Now, people are aware of it and want to learn more.

As more consumers become interested in using biodiesel, there is one major obstacle that could restrict retail access of the fuel. Biodiesel can't currently be stored in underground storage tanks, which limits the ability of many traditional fueling stations to offer the fuel to customers. According to William Rukeyser, the State Water Resources Control Board's public affairs director, the storage issue stems from the fact that underground storage tanks aren't currently certified by Underwriters Laboratory Inc. for use with biodiesel.

The issue is expected to resolve itself fairly quickly once UL certification becomes available. "The issue is not about whether biodiesel can be sold or used as a fuel in California," Rukeyser says. "The only issue that we are dealing with is where it can be stored while it's awaiting sale."

Resolution of the underground storage tank issue should help increase public access to biodiesel because more retailers will be able to offer the fuel using existing infrastructure. In addition, Smith and Jordan say they see the potential for a citywide biodiesel mandate in the future, similar to the mandate that has been implemented in Portland, Ore. "In Portland, every gas station within city limits selling diesel has to offer a B5 blend of biodiesel or higher," Smith says. "It was a little complicated, but they managed to get it done."

Based on the success the community has realized so far, it seems likely the use of biodiesel will continue to grow. "I think we are going to be on the same path five to 10 years from now," Jordan says. "I think we'll have more biodiesel blends being used, not only within the city fleet, but the private fleets as well." He also expects to see the formation more public/private partnerships that will help celebrate the private industry's capacity and to develop energy recovery programs throughout the city.

Although biodiesel isn't necessarily a cheaper alternative to petroleum-based fuel right now, and can be difficult for many to afford, Smith says many choose to purchase it anyway. "Sometimes desperate measures lead to innovation and a burning desire and belief in doing the right thing and trying to save the planet," he says. "I think that's what San Francisco is about."

Erin Voegele is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 373-8040.
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