Pickens County Makes the Case for Biodiesel

In the summer of 2009, Pickens County began a biodiesel conversion program that turns waste cooking oil into fuel at a custom-built facility located at the county's landfill. The Southeast's first-of-its-kind endeavor - which started out as a $250 experimental project - now produces around 2,000 - 3,000 gallons of biodiesel each month.

Although initial estimates predicted the total cost of the project would be around $750,000, officials were able to complete the facility, build the infrastructure, and purchase a collection vehicle for around $190,000, according to a report in the Pickens Sentinel.

Using used cooking oil from customer recycling stations, district schools, and a few, select businesses, the program saves taxpayer money, improves air quality - biodiesel produces 78% less carbon dioxide emissions than regular diesel fuel - and promotes a healthier environment for employees who drive and maintain the county's vehicle fleet.

The innovative project produces a fuel - from B5 to pure B100 - that can be used by itself or as a splash blend in all of the county's diesel vehicles. No engine retrofits are required, and the biofuel runs cleaner, so engines are better protected. 

"It's a great place for waste oil to go," said Shelley Robbins, sustainable communities and clean air associate at Upstate Forever. "They produce an incredibly high-quality product for a very predictable amount of money."

And that predictable amount - which averages between $1.30 and $1.60 per gallon - levels out the county's diesel costs and translates into a savings of around $1.90 to $2.20 per gallon when compared with current diesel prices,* according to a recent analysis.

Although it can be a challenge to get a clean, reliable supply of used oil, county administrators would like to ramp up production, taking advantage of even more of the facility's ability to produce up to an estimated 750,000 gallons per year. At a certain price point, it will become cost-effective to use virgin oil in the conversion process, allowing for a large-scale, mass production operation.

"We are watching the fuel market now, and we feel comfortable that diesel will eventually hit $4 per gallon," said Gerald Wilson, Pickens County director of roads and bridges and county recycling coordinator. "Once that happens, we can use virgin oil in large quantities and manufacture enough fuel to supply all of the county's diesel vehicles."

But for many, including Wilson, the benefit to the environment outweighs the cost savings.

"The biggest benefit is the difference in air quality," he said. "This is one of those green initiatives that reduces emissions being put-off into the environment. The money savings is good, but the environment is a lot more important."

The program received accolades almost immediately after operations began, garnering an honorable mention for the prestigious S.C. Association of Counties' (SCAC) J. Mitchell Graham Award in 2009.

"With fluctuating diesel fuel prices and a growing awareness for the need to develop sustainable energy systems, [Pickens County] developed an innovative program that includes a unique fuel production unit, an education awareness vehicle, and the infrastructure to collect waste cooking oil to convert it into fuel," said then-SCAC President L. Gregory Pearce, Jr.

In 2010, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control awarded Pickens County with the Spare the Air Award, recognizing officials for making a significant impact on the air quality of South Carolina. At the time, DHEC estimated over 1 million pounds of carbon emissions had been reduced as a result of the biodiesel project.

Resources:

Biodiesel 101: How It Works

The Business Case for Biodiesel: Easy as 1-2-3

(Photos courtesy of Shelley Robbins/Upstate Forever and Ten at the Top.)

*Approximate on-road diesel price in June, 2012.

James Richardson is a freelance writer and the publisher of the Travelers Rest Tribune. When he's not writing, James enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife and two children at any one of many places across the Upstate.