California restaurants are suffering. This means less cooking oil left over to make biofuels

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Before the pandemic, Bay Area fast food chain Super Duper Burgers placed a 50-gallon container in each restaurant to store used cooking oil.

The containers filled up every two weeks and were collected by SeQuential, a biodiesel producer in Portland, Ore.

Then restaurants suffered drastic cuts in March, and containers took much longer to fill.

“We eventually brought it down to every two weeks once things started to improve, but I’m not sure yet how it’s going to go because of the (new) lockdown,” said Ed Onas, vice-president. -President of Super Duper’s operations, who noted that the chain has grown from 15 locations to 13.

As Super Duper’s experience suggests, the economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus has had a ripple effect on the biofuels industry. Biofuel plants, which California touts as greener than regular diesel or gasoline, often rely on restaurants, factories, and other sources that regularly generate used cooking grease. Refineries can turn it into renewable diesel or biodiesel to fill trucks, ships, school buses and more.

Biofuels executives say the supply of used cooking oil in recent months has been well below the comparable period of 2019.

“In the spring, what was collected and taken out fell to about 20%,” said Joe Gershen, president of Encore BioRenewables, a Santa Monica consultancy that works with biofuel producers. “So it’s an 80% decrease, and we’re hoping it doesn’t come back to that, but I think everyone is preparing for something along those lines with these new restrictions.”

Tyson Keever, chief operating officer of SeQuential, the biodiesel company that serves California, said the large number of restaurant closings on the West Coast has had an impact. It is mainly restaurants that supply the oil due to their use of deep fryers, he said – but other institutions such as sports stadiums, schools, hospitals, business centers, shopping centers business and even government entities sometimes do it too.

“In places where there has always been a large influx of business travelers and tourists, like the San Francisco area, it actually affects us because there is now less tourism there, which means that “There are fewer customers eating fried foods in restaurants,” said Keever, who also chairs the California Advanced Biofuels Alliance.

Alex Politron, used cooking oil service technician at SeQuential, takes a pipe from the back of a truck to show how cooking oil is collected in restaurants.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Demand for the end product, biodiesel fuel, is down slightly due to the pandemic, according to Dogpatch Biofuels, a biodiesel refueling station in San Francisco.

“We serve a lot of vehicles in the tourism industry, and few of them are running, so this has had an impact on our station,” said Brian Deninger, owner of the company, who said no. have had no difficulty in obtaining fuel.

The production of renewable diesel, which is chemically more similar to regular diesel than biodiesel and, therefore, can enter tanks at 100% force, has been hit more, Gershen said, because it is a newer product than biodiesel. But customers won’t notice a shortage at the pump, as refineries can switch to alternatives like midwestern soybean or canola oil.

In addition, the price of biofuel products cannot deviate too far from the price of regular diesel or customers will revolt, according to Keever and other experts.

“It probably doesn’t affect the prices at the pump because what is happening is that a lot of those prices are absorbed by the fuel traders,” Gershen said. “We don’t see it spill over to the consumer. What happens is the guys in the middle are just making a little less margin.

Imperial Western Products, a biodiesel producer in Southern California, saw the collection of used grease from restaurants decline by 50% in April, according to Eric Kayser, director of the company’s biodiesel division.

This resulted in a decrease of around 30% in actual biodiesel production, which can be a potential problem as demand has only fallen by around 8% to 10%, Kayser said.

“There just isn’t enough oil on the market to feed our factories for the most part,” he said.

Kayser said his company had a cooking oil collection site in northern California that served about 1,000 restaurants before the pandemic, but about 300 of them in that region “no longer need it. no service from us ”. He didn’t know if it was because these restaurants were closing, but he said “it’s pretty dramatic”.

“As these restaurant restrictions alternated and disappeared, we’re probably back to about 65 or 70% of all of our pre-COVID collection numbers,” Kayser said – an improvement, at least, from April .

Kayser said restaurants are generally paid for their used oil, and the amount they earn is based on several variables, such as quantity and quality.

“For example, if you are a restaurant that has very clean frying, like if you were using your oil to fry only potato chips, then your oil would be very clean and would be worth more than a restaurant frying potato products. meat, ”he said. noted.

Super Duper, the Bay Area burger chain, has chosen not to seek compensation for its used oils, according to Onas. SeQuential gets it back so Super Duper doesn’t have to dispose of it – and helping to produce biofuels is part of the chain’s environmental mission, he said.

“At the end of the day, that’s what’s most important to us,” Onas said.

Bryan Mena is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @bpmena



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