State’s first commercial biodiesel plant opens in Nashua

When you’re creating a startup company in old industrial space like a former Nashua Corp. building near the Nashua Millyard, you don’t sketch out your ideas on the back of a napkin – you do it on a chunk of old drywall.

“This is our cocktail napkin,” joked Kevin Batchelder, holding up the board with its hand-drawn ideas for tanks, pipes, boilers and separator column that is the state’s first commercial biodiesel plant. The facility opened last month.

Not very glamorous, perhaps, but neither is the process of taking as much as 250,000 gallons of used restaurant grease each year and turning it into fuel that can fill the tanks of diesel-powered trucks and cars.

However, it has one huge advantage over snazzier alternative-energy ideas: This one is ready to go.

Batchelder Biodiesel Refineries is one of a handful of operations nationwide that can take “brown grease” – the gunkiest leftovers from restaurant work, pulled out of grease traps – and turn it into diesel fuel that meets American Society of Testing and Materials standards.

The refinery uses well-established technology and seems small enough and frugal enough (much of its equipment is used) to sidestep the credit crunch.

In contrast, consider Northeast Biodiesel in Greenfield, Mass. It was supposed to start production in a few months and generate 10 million gallons of biodiesel a year – 40 times Batchelder’s production. But the plant is on hold while it tries to raise another $4 million, more than half its total cost, said chief executive Larry Union.

“That’s our plan, but clearly it is dependent upon finishing the financing,” said Union.

Installation of the Batchelder Biodiesel Refineries, by contrast, will tally just a few hundred thousand dollars, and a visit makes it obvious that nothing has been spent on frills. The company is owned by three New Hampshire small-business men: Bill Lynch, Bill Langille and Lee Batchelder, who is Kevin’s father. Langille’s son, Chris, is a Keene State College employee and Kevin’s partner.

Another advantage with a smaller operation, Kevin Batchelder notes: “There’s no problem with supply.”

Stewart Septic of Bradford, Mass., the company that will collect restaurant grease and deliver it to the refinery, gathers about 5 million gallons of glop a year from around New England, 20 times what this refinery can handle.

The plan is to have 8,000-gallon tankers of grease pull up to one loading dock and pump the material into tanks, where it will be heated, separated, mixed and washed. A week or so later, 8,000 gallons of diesel can be tanker-trucked away by a wholesaler.

The process is so simple that only one full-time employee is anticipated.

Batchelder Refineries is hoping for a quarter-million gallons of production in the first year. A similar refinery is planned in Keene, continuing a partnership between that city’s government and Keene State College that has been on the leading edge of biodiesel for close to a decade. (That plant may seek so-called “angel” investing.)

Between them, the two plants could keep a half-million gallons of stinky slime from being dumped into landfills annually and keep hundreds of thousand of gallons of diesel from being imported. (Diesel made from animal or vegetable fat is less potent than diesel made from petroleum, so it doesn’t replace it gallon for gallon.)

In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t much. The United States consumes 60 billion gallons of diesel annually; at best, Batchelder’s refineries would replace far less than one-1,000th of a percent of this.

But the multiple environmental advantages of this process – saving landfill space, reducing oil usage, reducing emissions from vehicles because biodiesel burns more cleanly – makes grease-to-fuel a big hit on the “green” circuit.

It also has none of the environmental drawbacks of biofuel made from corn or other crops, which can raise food costs and occupy farmland.

The company holds it will have business benefits, too.

“We can undercut diesel and undercut biodiesel,” said Chris Langille, who is helping the startup get started.

The operation has other novelties. It plans to take glycerol, a byproduct of the refining, and burn it to do some of the heating of grease. This is such a novelty that the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services will have to monitor the smokestack to make sure it doesn’t violate air pollution laws.

In the meantime, the city’s newest industry will be working away – with perhaps a bit of french-fry smell. — THE TELEGRAPH