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Biodiesel Production Training: Empowering Local Economies & Switching to Clean Fuels

The Union of Concerned Scientists says that biodiesel made from waste materials or used cooking oil can cut global warming pollution by 80 to 90 percent relative to conventional diesel fuel. This idea builds on the simple idea of producing biodiesel with used cooking oil at the local level, in developing economies by removing a common barrier to setting up small biodiesel plants: training and technology acquisition needed to empower local production. Using a simple training (academy) model, this scheme will produce wide benefits to local entrepreneurs, ecosystems, and to participating businesses.

Photo of Alisa Ahmadian
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Several years ago, I spent most of a year working in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a small social enterprise called Naga Biofuels. Naga is a small biodiesel company that provides clean fuel to customers throughout the country. In order to produce biodiesel, Naga works closely with its community in order to obtain a feedstock of used cooking oil, which it then converts into biodiesel in its factory. When processed, used cooking oil turns into a renewable fuel, which can then be used in any traditional diesel machine, including vehicles and generators. In many parts of the world, including most developing nations, the majority of vehicles run on diesel fuel. However, in these areas, imported diesel is often unregulated, and thus, extra polluting and dirty. Have you ever noticed that smoke coming out of exhaust pipes seems particularly black and thick when you travel? 

By switching to diesel fuel, community members will realize significant economic, environental and public health benefits. When produced at a certain scale, biodiesel can be produced at an extremely competitive rate when compared to diesel. Additionally, it is not subject to volatile price fluctations typical of fossil fuels. Most importantly, biodiesel plants can provide an incredible boost to local economies because they inherently work off a necessary symbiotic relatinship with local entrepreneurs: in order to produce fuel, they need to acquire lots of used cooking oil. Local restaurants, hotels and food stall owners tend to have a lot of used cooking oil on their hands, which is difficult to dispore of safely. Biodiesel factories can offer additional income to these busineses by paying for their leftover oil, and setting up official relationships for ongoing sales. 

UPDATE: The crux of this idea is the creation of an academy that focuses on removing a key barrier to biodiesel production in developing nations (for example, Cambodia): the training and equipment needed to start a biodiesel plant. Though the biodiesel production process is not complicated (I learned it as a layperson within a few days!), it does require formal hands-on training, especially for wrorkplace safety Additionally, the equipment needed to set up a plant is often produced in the West, and there are some tricky customs mazes to go through to get it.

The Model: My idea is to set up an organization (Biodiesel Academy) - either a nonprofit or a social enterprise- that will provide technical training and equipment acquisition services to help set up new local biodiesel plants. This organization will be a roving academy, which will set up in key regions after performing market research on the feasbility of producing biodiosel in the area, and what already exists. Here is some basic criteria for selecting these areas: 
  • small to medium sized city/urban area
  • existing local economy: food producers, mechanics, hotels, 
  • road network
The Academy's role is to provide a curricuum and training course to the interested plant owners and their employes, as well as providing the service of navigating the bureaucracy needed to obtain biodiesel production equipment. Additonally, the Academy can deliver useful resources for later community-level workshops on the benefits & "how to's" of switching to biodiesel. 

The Academy is not intended to be static, or fully embedded in any given community for the longterm. Instead, it will provide its course, training and assistance with equipment production in one region, and following sucessful completion, will then move on to another key market. The goal is to start up a plant without saturating the area for competition. Because there is signigicant startup cost assocaited with launching a biodiesel enterprise, there will need to be a rigoous process for determining if inducation to the Academy makes sense for each member. One goal for the Academy would be to fundraise resources to provide financial assistance to certain members. 

There are several nonprofit organizations that use a model similar to the one proposed here. For example, One Acre Fund provides holistic training, resources and inputs to smallholder farmers throughout Africa. In the past few years, they have expanded rapidly into new countries and regions using a "New Country Scout" program; essentially, this means that One Acre Fund has invested resources into hiring employees that go into new markets to perform deep research. They learn about the region, form relationships, and discover what it will take to set up a new program there. I believe that the Biodiesel Academy would need to bring on a similar model in order to determine which new market to move into next.

Ultimately, this market-based approach with deliver much needed technical expertise and logistics help to spur a new economy, and a supportive circle for existing businesses and community members. 

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

There are many different community members that benefit from this idea: - Local food producers: From restaurant owners, to operators of small food stands, anyone with used cooking oil on their hands can now see additional income on a regular business by becoming part of the "feedstock bank" for the local plant. - Local entrepreneurs: Setting up a biodiesel factory can provide long-term, sustainable income in any area with a thriving commercial sector (hotels, restaurants, etc.) This business can also provide green jobs to several employees. - Vehicle owners: Biodiesel is an affordable, clean alternative to conventional diesel. It helps vehicles run smoother and leads to engines lasting much longer. Further, owners won't be subject to the price volatility of fossil fuels. - Community members: Everyone in the community will enjoy the longterm health benefits that come with increasing renewable fuels in the area- less asthma, less polluted waters, less lung disease. And, in the long term, a thriving ecosystem and environment. In many developing nations, citizens rely on generators as a vital power source- using biodiesel instead of traditional diesel can produce powerful environmental benefits.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

Once a plant is set up with equipment and some initial feedstock (used cooking oil), the timeline to produce an initial batch of biodiesel is very short (a few days). From here, the work is to secure and widen a customer base by spreading the word and educating the community on the benefits of switching to biodiesel. This idea is simple- biodiesel plants will become valuable environmental education centers for the community, which is just as important as their production capacity. By providing an alternate, clean fuel source, these plants can encourage a swift transition to renewable fuels from polluting ones for anyone that owns a vehicle or generator.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

At this point, I need to better understand the costs associated with setting up a small biodiesel plant, including the price of necessary machinery, and the steps needed to ship it to various regions around the world. To do this, I can start reaching out to some equipment producers to obtain price quotes and information on shipping. [Update: added interview!] Additionally, I need to better understand what type of organizational model would work best here (nonprofit/social enterprise).

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

- What are some ideas for how I can make this business model lean? The goal is to make this service as affordable as possible for local entrepreneurs interested in setting up and owning plants. - Are there business models out there that I should look to for inspiration, including outside of the renewable energy sector? - Does anyone have information biodiesel equipment pricing, or can you recommend good companies that I should look into?

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • Biofuels

This idea emerged from:

  • An Individual


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kenta Darley-Usmar

Hi Alisa and Natalie,

I am also really interested in your academy proposal and have been thinking about biofuel production at a community level as a way to create economic pathways for young adults from communities with high levels of youth unemployment and poverty. It definitely could serve as a social entrepreneurship model with the additional benefit of environmental sustainability.  I am based in CA where we have a network of Local Conservation Corps as well as the California Conservation Corps that would be absolutely suited for this type of work on a community scale if the economic incentive and career opportunities viable for young adults.

I am open to collaboration if either of you are interesting in working in CA.

Photo of Joey Chy

I think you have an amazing idea here.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this post being a Featured Contribution!

Photo of Natalie Lake

Hey Alisa!

Biofuel is amazing! I used to drive a biofuel truck when I worked at a wolf sanctuary in Colorado and it was amazing (literally smelled like fries when you drove it.) Will you be putting together a course, an online course, or a manual? Will you be releasing the course/manual in multiple languages? Will you charge for the education or will it be free to the public?

There are a to of great articles outlining the basic steps for how to start your own Biodiesel co-op, you might be interested in this article put out by SpringBoard Biodiesel. I think looking at a few of these would help you piece together a rough outline of your manual/model and also might be able to help you figure out rough cost estimates?

Also (I shared the following links with another OpenIDEOer whose project I'm including below in case you'd like to coordinate) for models of biofuel production, you might be interested in seeing what the city of Raleigh is doing (they offer collection for both restaurants and homes)

Perry Georgia has a similar initiative and they hope to eventually have a fleet of trucks (similar to Pittsburgh's four city trucks) that run off veggie oil. They collect from restaurants and offer dropoff for households.

Finally, the city of SF offers oil collection sites (you have to bring the oil to a certain areas it isn't a collection service) for both restaurants and homes, they use the oil to power a fleet of trucks.

Hope these can help inspire you and help you figure out the steps necessary for mapping out your guide.

Also, here is the link to Miriam's project. She is hoping to start a biofuel collection system and refinery in Colombia and what you are proposing is pretty much the exact feedback she is looking for from the OpenIDEO community.

Finally, you might be interested at looking at Carles and Oriol's idea, "Clean Energy Angels", which is like a renewable energy mentorship program. While your ideas are different, I think your ideas overlap in how to diffuse education as efficiently as possible so it might be good to collaborate with their team.

Hope these links are helpful. Cannot wait to follow your idea as it develops!

Photo of Alisa Ahmadian

Hi Natalie. Wow, thank you for all of the amazing assistance and ideas you've provided. I love collaborating within the Challenge to see how we can help each other's ideas grow. When I worked at a biodiesel plant (in business development/community engagement) in Cambodia, the company's founder was from Colorado. He started his first biodiesel business in Boulder- wonder if you rubbed shoulders? Great story.

Springboard Biodiesel's resources will be very helpful to me. I'm struggling a bit with the concept of an online manual, mostly because I think that getting hands-on training is so important here given the healthy/safety risks associated with producing biodiesel. I think it's important to have these resources readily available, but I'm very interested in building out a roving academy to provide a tactile learning course. In particular, I'm hoping to inspire non-engineers to get on board!

I've updated the entry a bit to reflect some new thinking, and have included a new interview I performed. Next step is to keep digging into similar challenges that you've included. Thanks again!

Photo of Natalie Lake

Hi Alisa,

I definitely agree that hands on training is the best way to educate communities and I love your idea of the roving academy. I do wonder if putting together a manual, which communities can use a reference guide after your course might still be valuable to the communities. What do you think? The updates look great! by the way!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great thinking, Alisa – and we're looking forward to seeing the idea grow from more exploration. Meanwhile you might like to try out creating a User Experience Map to explain your idea further: Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Photo of Alisa Ahmadian

Hi Meena, thank you! A User Experience Map seems like a great strategy to move this idea forward. My goal is to get it done by Friday. I went ahead and performed an interview with a stakeholder and added it today.