School district hopes to cut electricity costs with system that runs on discarded vegetable oil
by Laura Haley
Contributing Writer
Mar 06, 2014 | 3358 views | 0 0 comments | 52 52 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Paying for electricity to power a large building like Grand County High School doesn’t always come cheap, but the Grand County School District is hoping to reduce those costs with a new alternative energy source – discarded vegetable oil.

According to Grand County Board of Education chairman Jim Webster, the district began looking at options for an alternative energy source about a year ago.

“We started out thinking we’d get some solar panels and get a Blue Sky grant,” Webster said.

Grand County School District Superintendent Scott Crane said it quickly became obvious that it wouldn’t be possible to get enough solar panels on the school’s roof to make a significant difference in the electric bill.

“We even looked into batteries to store the energy,” he said. “What we realized is we’d need a whole room full of batteries.”

Eric Thatcher, a consultant with Trane USA who specializes in energy management solutions for higher education, explained that the district was looking for a way to reduce power spikes, which prove costly to GCHS every month.

“Anytime during the month that you have a spike, the biggest spike sets your rate for the entire month,” Thatcher said.

Robert Farnsworth, the district’s business administrator, said the electric bill for all of the district buildings can range from $17,000 monthly to more than $70,000 during the hotter months. Heating the high school alone can cost as much as $5,000 per month, he said.

After looking at several different options, the district began exploring a new technology that runs completely off of the fryer oil that restaurants generally throw away.

Waste vegetable oil cogeneration plants are common technology in Europe, according to Thatcher, but they haven’t really caught on in the United States yet.

“It’s basically a tiny power plant,” Thatcher said. “It follows the load strategically.”

That means that the series of generators could be powered when necessary and turned off at other times. The cogeneration system will be connected to the high school’s heating and air conditioning controls and is designed to kick in before a power spike occurs to offset electricity demand, Thatcher said.

Unlike a traditional coal powered plant, Thatcher said waste-oil cogeneration plants are much more efficient.

“More than two-thirds of the fuel used to generate electricity is lost as heat,” he said.

The cogeneration plant the school district is considering boasts 90 percent efficiency, he said.

If installed, the system would run off of the used fryer oil donated to the district by area restaurants. That oil would then be put into tanks, which would filter out anything that couldn’t be burned by the machine. That oil would then be burned by a series of small Kubota motors.

Thatcher said the original proposal included one large generator that was capable of producing 150 kilowatts. However, after speaking with the Belgium-based manufacturer, Cogengreen, the proposal was changed to include five separate 30 kilowatt units.

Thatcher said the smaller units offer several incentives.

“There would be less capital costs at the beginning,” he said. “It would also allow the students in the auto shop at the high school to provide maintenance on the units. It would be used as a learning tool.”

The manufacturer has agreed to send licensed mechanics to teach school district personnel how to do maintenance on the units, Thatcher said. This would allow the machines to continue to be covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, even though the students would be doing the work.

Farnsworth said the used oil has become a “commodity,” so companies that choose to donate it to the district could claim the donation on their taxes. Thatcher said that could result in more of the oil being disposed of properly.

Moab City Engineer Rebecca Andrus said the project could benefit the community by keeping fryer oil from getting into the city sewer system.

“It can gum up the system and cause backups,” she said, adding that the city has had issues with oil getting into the system in the past.

The school district has already been awarded a grant from the Rocky Mountain Power Blue Sky Project in the amount of $125,000. Several other interested donors have come forward to help support the project, Thatcher said. The district has also applied for an Environmental Protection Agency education grant, which would help cover the cost of using the system as a teaching tool.

The initial price of the system is approximately $560,000 with additional funds needed for trucks and equipment to pick up the grease. Farnsworth said that with the money that has already been secured through grants and donations, it should take about 12 years for the savings to offset the cost of the system.

“The more money we get, the less time it takes to recover those costs,” he said.

Thatcher said that there has been strong community support for the project.

“We’ve been working on this for over a year, and everyone we’ve talked to has been enthusiastic,” he said.

“As we get the word out, there are a lot of people interested in helping out,” Farnsworth said.

The Cogengreen system would be a first in the United States, according to Crane. Although there are similar setups at larger institutions such as the University of Utah and Utah State University, it would be the first for a school district.

The school board has decided to continue to pursue the project and is hoping to secure enough donors to cover the cost of the project.

“I think it’s a great project,” Crane said. “It would be really great for the community.”

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