I like entrepreneurs. They are the spark plugs of capitalism and technological innovation. It's only when the entrepreneur becomes too successful that problems develop. He brings on investors and then a board of directors. He loses control of his vision and his company.
The little brainchild he launched in his garage becomes an economic behemoth, crushing rivals, fixing markets, buying off lawmakers and regulators, controlling the media and the culture. Most of the major problems this country faces today are the result of the power which the energy and automotive industries hold over us. Once fragile little companies based on new technology, they have resisted all attempts to integrate into a rational, holistic society, and they now seem intent on driving this country over a cliff.
The good news is that there is a new generation of entrepreneurs who are working to mitigate the environmental, economic, and political damage these giant industries have done to us. One of them is Andy Cohen.
Cohen is a one-man company who goes around to Charleston-area restaurants, pumping the oil out of their fryers, filtering it through a centrifuge, cleaning the fryer, and putting the oil back in. As the literature for his business FryRight points out, not only does this operation eliminate a dangerous and unpleasant chore for the restaurant staff, but it extends the life of the cooking oil by as much as 50 percent.
That may not sound like big numbers, but a single restaurant fryer typically holds about 7.5 gallons of oil, which now costs about $7 per gallon. A large restaurant may have six or more fryers, and the price of that oil will only go up as the demand for biofuel competes with the demand for cooking oil and other foods. Extending the life of cooking oil is a small way to reduce that demand.
But the big payoff — economic and environmental — will come later. That will happen when Cohen begins collecting old cooking oil — oil that has already been cleaned once or twice and is ready to be disposed of — and starts using it and selling it as diesel fuel.
No one knows how many gallons of waste vegetable oil (WVO) goes out of Charleston-area fryers every week, but it is thousands of gallons. Most of it is sold to chemical companies for use in cosmetics, animal feed, and other products. (In some regions of the country it is simply thrown out. That's against environmental regulations in South Carolina, but South Carolinians have a notorious disregard for environmental regulations. Dumped into the public sewer system, WVO can cause blockage and odors. That is another potential problem that Cohen's company can solve.)
Last week the city of San Francisco announced plans to collect the WVO from its 2,600 restaurants and use it to offset 20 percent of the diesel fuel used by city buses. It is a win/win/win for the city. First, it saves money on diesel fuel; second, it assures that the WVO does not go into city sewers; and third, it is cleaner than burning fossil fuel because biodiesel recycles carbon dioxide which is already in the biosphere, not locked under the earth. Furthermore, WVO contains no sulfur or heavy metals and offers better lubricity than petroleum-based diesel fuel.
Of course, San Francisco has been on the cutting edge of the environmental movement and other social movements for decades. In recent months it has banned plastic shopping bags, Styrofoam take-out containers, and bottled water in some restaurants. No one expects this conservative old Southern city to jump into the vanguard of any major movement, but that only leaves more room for individuals like Andy Cohen to step forward.
Cohen is still tinkering and fine-tuning his centrifugal filtration system. When he gets the particle size in the WVO he collects down to one micron, he will be ready to convert his van to a diesel engine and start running it on what comes out of local fryers. He will then equip it with tanks to collect the oil from restaurants. He will then treat it and find a way to market it and get it into the general fuel stream.
There is still much work to be done on all fronts, but the technology is simple enough. "It's just basic organic high school chemistry," says the former high school science teacher.
No one is saying that Andy Cohen's one-man operation is going to solve our environmental and energy crisis, but it is a beginning. And it is people like Cohen who will ultimately offer us new technologies and new ways of solving problems.
It's corporations which have brought America to our current crisis, but it will be entrepreneurs like Andy Cohen who will show us the way out.