Interviews and profiles of small businesses that exemplify environmental sustainability, ethical management, and sound business structure.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Pure and Simple" - Green Grease Monkey. Boston, MA

From the deep fryer into your car! 
Patrick Keaney of Green Grease Monkey fills his tank with filtered used vegetable oil

“Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) is energy, pure and simple,” Patrick Keaney of Green Grease Monkey explains to me. We are standing outside his shop – two garage bays in Boston, MA – where outside the temperature is 90°, but inside the garage bays it feels twice as hot. He explains to me the configuration of his shop from a distance, to avoid the heat.

Green Grease Monkey is a good place to start this blog. It’s a small company (two people working part time) that is the epitome of a win-win. They collect used vegetable oil from restaurants around the Boston area and convert diesel engines in cars to run on it (in addition to running workshops and converting old cars to sell). Biodiesel, you say? Nay, this stuff is even cleaner. With a quick addition of a couple parts under your hood and a new tank in the trunk, any diesel car can run on 100% WVO. It can be done in under a day and costs as little as $1,200. If you’ve got a supplier to sell you WVO cheaply (Patrick sells it for $1.75/gallon), your payback period can be as little as one year, depending on how much you drive and what kind of fuel efficiency your car gets. Maintenance costs and additional wear tear are no worse than normal as long as the driver knows how the system works.

The company got off to a running start.
“There was minimal upfront cost. We would purchase components on an as-needed basis the first year, doing conversions as often as possible. Our goal was to make the most cost-efficient yet effective kit possible...We started to make money the first year, I think. Our overhead was really, really low. We were working in the parking lot of the co-founder Jamie Merkle’s apartment building in Newton Center. We had to pay for the parts, the take-out food, and the cold beer. We would generally take the profits and buy more old diesels to fix up and sell.”
 It’s hard to find a clearer example of a mutually beneficial arrangement than Green Grease Monkey; everybody wins. Restaurants get to offload their used oil for free (instead of paying expensive disposal fees), and drivers get to significantly reduce their carbon footprint while saving quite a bit of cash. This is not just for the diehard green devotees, as Patrick pointed out to me.
“I was surprised at the number of people who were interested in doing it purely for the perceived economic benefit (i.e., it’s cheaper than paying for diesel). The other benefits – cleaner emissions, lessens dependence on foreign oil – didn’t matter a bit to them. Sort of depressing, when you think about what I do for my other work!”
 When diesel was approaching $5/gallon a few years ago, Patrick’s phone was ringing off the hook. However, since then the price has dropped, and business slowed noticeably - Patrick says they are now converting two or three cars a month. This doesn’t slow him down, though, as Patrick is a jack of all trades. In addition to running Green Grease Monkey, he is currently working for the Jill Stein for Governor Campaign in Massachusetts [Full disclosure: she’s my mom], and is also involved with a number of other projects.
“As a matter of fact, I’m headed to Sao Paulo, Brazil, next month, to consult with a recycling group that wants to run their collection trucks on the fryer oil they pick up. I’ve always dreamed about taking the conversion business to Latin America, where the weather is warmer and the diesel vehicles are more abundant.”
The International Energy Agency in its 2009 Oil Market Report states that oil consumption has outpaced new oil discovery since 1981.  If this is a sign that peak oil has passed, Green Grease Monkey might want to brace itself for a flood of business as oil prices rise.

On my way out, Patrick explains to me how Rudolf Diesel, when he invented his engine, envisioned exactly what Green Grease Monkey is doing. He saw that with vegetable oil, communities could be self sufficient in creating their own fuel through agriculture to heat their homes and power their transportation. However, this micro fuel production, while elegant, wouldn’t provide enough energy to support our fuel-thirsty lifestyles (all-mighty wikipedia estimates 1% of all US oil consumption could be offset by WVO - more if we instituted better efficiency measures), so Patrick also educates the students in his engine-converting workshops about energy conservation.
“We encourage people to ride bikes, walk, or take public transportation whenever possible, and to drive only as a last resort.”
Unlike with ethanol fuels, WVO doesn't have the negative effects on the global food supply. It simply gives a second life to what would otherwise be discarded.  However, as with other biomass based energy technologies, potential supply is an issue.

As a final question, I ask Patrick if he has come across any other WVO or green business opportunities.
“I personally feel that [WVO]’s highest end use is in supplying warmth for people in climates like ours (as a home heating oil additive) or in powering trucks to bring food from farms to the cities. Everything after that is kind of ‘nice to have’. Maybe it could be used to green public transportation – the MBTA buses could be made to run on it, or something. I tend not to think of things in terms of ‘business opportunities,’ though, so take all that for what it’s worth. I like to think of ‘liberation opportunities.’”

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