Feemster, the shop foreman, manages the fuel production process in a corner of the shop that might otherwise be designated for maintenance work. Wearing worn work boots and a crisp blue collar he ensures gallons of vegetable oil are processed though a series of tubes, filters and tanks until it is transformed into fuel fit for pumping into the county’s diesel fleet.
It’s a program that has garnered Calhoun County two awards from state associations in the past 12 months. The fledgling program, called From Stovetop to Road Top, has room to grow. But for the time being, that growth is being stunted by a lack of the fuel’s primary component – vegetable oil.
“There is a finite amount available,” said Mark Bentley, executive director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition. “The oil is a function of either the collection of restaurants, or consumer collection.”
Here in Calhoun County the numbers seem low when considering that Calhoun County only collects 20 gallons of household oil a week, Bentley said. The county collects considerably more, between 100 and 150 gallons, from area restaurants and uses restaurants as the primary source of oil for biodiesel conversion.
Once combined, Highway Department produces enough biodiesel from the two sources to supplement its overall fuel consumption by 10 percent.
“We just do a little formula and figure out how much 10 percent would be,” Feemster said. “Then we just fill it up with regular diesel fuel.”
County engineer Brian Rosenbalm estimates that over the two-year life of the program, it has saved the county about a dollar for every gallon of fuel it’s produced. So far that’s about 3,500 gallons, and so, about $3,500 in savings.
Another potential source of oil for fuel –- school lunchrooms –- hasn’t been tapped in Calhoun County. Neither has a potential consumer of the product –- school bus fleets.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever made contact with the county school system as to whether or not we get their grease,” Rosenbalm said. “I think it’s something we can check into and see if it’s feasible.”
Mary Stonebreaker, the director of Calhoun County school system’s child nutrition program, said she’d never heard of the highway department’s biodiesel program, but would be interested in participating. She said the schools don’t use as much grease to cook as the used to, but they may be able to collect enough to supply the county with some additional oil. The school system currently has a company pick up its excess oil, she said.
The school’s participation in the program is quite feasible, they both said.
Adopting a school bus fleet into the biodiesel program would be more complicated and is something that would take a considerable amount of time to coordinate. And, for now, the highway department only produces enough biodiesel to supplements its on fleet, Rosenbalm said.
“It’s something that would be well into the future,” he said. “We would have to grow our program to make that possible.”
Kenneth New, transportation director for Calhoun County Schools said biodiesel fuel consumption is something that might work for the school bus fleet in the future. He, like Stonebreaker, learned of the county’s biodiesel conversion program Monday.
One more obstacle in the program's growth -– linked to fuel collection –- is communication. Bentley said that when people know about the program, they are usually happy to participate in it.
“The process is really, truly a no-brainier,” Bentley said. “Once you lay it out and you get somebody to buy in … then all of the sudden folks do it.”
Contact staff writer Laura Johnson at 256-235-3544.