From chicken wings and fries to powering county trucks


This generator, which is powered by 100 percent biodiesel, provides all the power needed to operate the system that converts vegetable oil into biodiesel.

Carl McKinney/Correspondent
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 4:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 4:42 p.m.

The aroma of fried food that wafts on the breeze at a section of the Alachua County Hazardous Waste Collection Center doesn't come from someone's lunch.

It's a hard-to-ignore indicator of how the county is addressing an environmental problem while saving the taxpayers money. It is the smell of used cooking oil that is being turned into biodiesel fuel.

Since 2010, the county has been collecting waste vegetable oil from residents and businesses and using it to make biodiesel, which is then blended with regular diesel to power some county vehicles.

Even the generator powering the household waste collection area where the used oil is collected runs on biodiesel.

This has helped the county environmentally and financially, said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.

"It can't fuel the entire county fleet, but it does cut down on how much (regular diesel) we need to buy," he said.

But now, county officials looking to expand the operation have had to put biodiesel production on hold because of a legislative snag.

In order to produce even small amounts for internal use, Florida requires a county to be licensed as a fuel wholesaler, which means the county has to keep a complex inventory of the fuel among other requirements, said Mark Sexton, communications coordinator for Alachua County.

Although local governments are exempt from some fuel taxes, Alachua County must pay them anyway and get a refund later.

"It's a heavy bureaucratic burden," Sexton said.

The law requiring the county to maintain a license as a fuel wholesaler has been on the books for well over a decade and the county knew of the requirement when it started converting leftover oil into biodiesel back in 2010. But the county has since decided the bureaucratic requirements outweigh the benefits and thus it stopped producing biodiesel in December 2012.

Two area legislators have recently filed bills in Tallahassee seeking to fix the problems.

"I think (use of biodiesel is) a good, common-sense approach," said state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. "It's a win-win for the taxpayers, for the environment, for everyone involved."

The potential value of biodiesel was made evident to county officials almost a decade ago when a number of hurricanes ripped across the state, causing havoc to fuel supplies.

"In 2004, the county never ran out of fuel," Bird said, "but we became concerned when shipping lanes and oil terminals got disrupted."

Having biodiesel to supplement the supply means that the county can use its diesel stocks more sparingly to run its emergency generators and vehicles.

The county also has seen an environmental benefit. When homeowners or restaurants improperly dispose of used cooking oil by pouring it down the drain, it solidifies and clogs wastewater collection lines, which can cause sewage spills, Bird said.

"We've had problems with local creeks that have ended up with raw sewage in them" as a result of oil hardening in the lines, he said.

With grants from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the county set up waste oil drop-off stations at its five Rural Solid Waste Collection Centers and at the Alachua County Hazardous Waste Collection Center.

Emiliano's and Manuel's restaurants downtown are major contributors of used vegetable oil, Bird said. Last year, the county also collected a lot of waste oil from the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire.

Bird estimates the county produced about 200 gallons of biodiesel each month last year, but officials have had to suspend production because of the problem with the state rules.

Other counties in Florida, including St. Johns, and cities such as Tallahassee and Panama City have similar programs and are facing the same challenge.

Alachua County Environmental Protection Department officials are working with the Florida Department of Revenue on proposed changes.

The bills would eliminate the fuel wholesaler requirement for counties, municipal governments and school districts that want to produce fuel for internal use. They streamline the processes for refunds and tax-filing.

The Florida DOR agreed it would not affect the revenue the state receives from the county, Bird said. It's all about the paperwork, Sexton said.

The County Commission has ranked changing the biodiesel legislation as one of its top five priorities for this year, Sexton said. The legislation will save the county time and manpower, freeing up resources and saving money.

Bradley has filed a bill in the Senate and state Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, submitted a companion bill to the House's drafting staff last week. Perry said it will help counties, municipalities and school districts create better technology for alternative fuels.

"I think they'll come up with better ways to make a cleaner, more efficient end product," he said.

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