Monday, July 17, 2006

A burning idea

The idea hit Louis Osteen, the James Beard Award-winning chef from Pawleys Island, S.C., while he was visiting an organic-foods producer in California. He was toque-deep in “tree huggers,” as he put it, and not a few were extolling the benefits of draining restaurant fryers--not for any health benefits, but to offset the high price of gasoline. The proponents were collecting the used oil, otherwise destined for disposal, and turning it into bio-diesel for their tractors and trucks, right “in their garages,” Osteen said. “It seems to be a not-too-difficult process.”

And that got him thinking, as he wrote in an e-mail to me late last week. “Who’s the largest user of fryers in the country? I’ll bet it’s McDonald’s,” he wrote, undoubtedly pegging that answer. “They could install converters in each of their stores, make the fuel, pump it to where a diesel generator resided, and co-generate their electricity. I’ll bet their consolidated eletric bill is in the billions. If they could save 15 to 20 percent, it would flow directly to their bottom line and increase shareholder value.” The government might even pay for the effort, since the switch would appreciably lessen demand for overseas oil.

“Then some entrepreneurs will start making smaller units for independents like me, and I’ll save a few bucks,” he noted. “Lots of good things will happen,” including a reconsideration of the knock against fried foods.

Louis wanted my feedback on the idea, and I noted that a newspaper in his part of the country had just run a story that lent credence to his notion. The town of Summerville, S.C., is in the process of adapting selected trucks from its service fleet to burn used fryer oil. French Fry One, a converted 1995 Chevrolet Suburban, is already on the road, and a dump truck might be the next piece of equipment to be retrofitted, according to the article in The Post and Courier.

And stranger ideas have become accepted business options. Co-generation, for instance, was once regarded as a crackpot suggestion from do-gooders who’d hugged one too many spotted owls. Then, after the energy crunch of the late ‘70s, disparagers started re-thinking the idea of allowing businesses to burn their garbage as a way of generating heat and electricity. By the mid-1980s, hotels were considering, and hospitals were trying it. The harebrained suddenly looked creative and feasible.

But that’s my opinion, not Jim Skinner’s. And getting the CEO of McDonald’s on the phone could prove as difficult for Louis as getting Dick Cheney to return a voice-mail message. If Osteen’s idea ever generates action, it will likely be the result of widespread discussion within the trade.

Which leads to the real purpose of this: What do you think of his notion? Is the oil in your fryers an overlooked way of easing your utility or gas costs?

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