EVERETT — At the Whole Foods Market commissary off Route 99, the canola oil used to prepare zucchini fritters and breaded chicken cutlets sold at the grocery chain’s regional stores is no longer just an ingredient. This week, it became the fuel that powers the commercial kitchen.
Whole Foods is recycling used oil from the commissary’s industrial fryers and burning it to run a custom-designed generator that provides nearly all the electricity for the 70,000-square-foot building, which houses the kitchens and another tenant. The system is powering lights, refrigerators, and a long list of appliances and other equipment used to prepare food sold in 62 stores from Maine to New Jersey.
Whole Foods estimates that the system, which also eliminates the need to dispose of more than 1,000 gallons of used oil every week, could save the commissary about 20 percent of its energy and waste-disposal costs.
“It’s the coolest thing to happen to vegetable oil since french fries,” said Rory Gaunt, chief executive of Lifecycle Renewables Inc., the Marblehead firm that installed the generator and refines the used canola oil for Whole Foods.
Waste canola and other vegetable oils have been used to make biodiesel fuel for trucks and cars, but they have rarely been used in this country on the scale of powering a large industrial building such as Whole Food’s commissary. The $400,000 project is believed by Whole Food officials to be the first waste-vegetable-oil-to-energy system being used to power a commercial food facility in the United States.
The project has been several years in the making. Whole Foods originally planned for canola oil to power the Everett commissary by 2009, but Lifecycle Renewables, which owns and operates the system and sells the power to Whole Foods, ran into financing problems during the recent recession.
But a $380,000 loan from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust — now the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center — allowed the project to move forward. Lifecycle is scheduled to repay the loan in about three years.
Alicia Barton McDevitt, executive director of the clean energy center, said her agency was drawn to the project because it uses a renewable technology that has received little attention here, but has been proven in the United Kingdom.
“The opportunity that was presented here was to allow a Massachusetts company to give a spotlight to this innovative technology,” Barton McDevitt said, while also allowing that company “to expand their business by growing in this new market.”
Kathy Loftus, global leader of sustainable engineering and energy management for the Austin, Texas, supermarket chain, said the Everett commissary seemed an ideal candidate for a renewable energy project in large part because it sits in an industrial neighborhood occupied by large power users that probably stress the electric grid. Powering the building with its own source of renewable energy, she said, would not only reduce that stress, but allow the company to further its reputation as environmentally sensitive.
At first, Whole Foods considered putting up a wind turbine or solar panels on the site, but decided neither installation would get them the type of power savings that would benefit the company and grid.
Enter canola oil. Commissary workers use 1,375 gallons of the stuff to prepare foods each week. The roughly 1,200 gallons that remain, Whole Foods representatives figured, would make an abundant energy source if they could figure out how to recycle it — ideally without adding any chemicals, as many biodiesel makers do.
Whole Foods, Loftus said, wanted “to show that more can be done [for the environment] within this industry.”
After the oil is used in the Everett facility’s industrial fryers, it gets trucked to Lifecycle Renewables’ specialized refinery in Charlestown. There, the maple syrup-colored liquid is filtered, then sent back to the commissary to run a custom-designed generator by Cummins Power Generation that was modified mechanically to run on canola oil instead of diesel.
About half of the 3,000 gallons a week of used oil that fuels the commissary generator will come directly from the Whole Foods facility or 28 stores in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and Northern Connecticut. The rest will be obtained from area businesses by Lifecycle Renewables.
“Restaurants, food manufacturers,” Gaunt said, “we even service a Norwegian cruise line that comes in every Friday and drops off their oil.”
The system began running intermittently in recent weeks while initial performance tests were done.
The generator is now powering the commissary completely, consuming about 3,000 gallons of recycled canola oil a week to provide the facility with the roughly 2 million kilowatt-hours worth of electricity it uses each year. A typical American home uses about 11,500 kilowatt-hours a year. National Grid still provides backup services to the facility.
Chris Austin, who oversees the Everett commissary, said the change from utility to canola power has gone off without a hitch.
“I haven’t noticed any interruption in service,” Austin said. “It hasn’t affected our business at all.”
The biggest visible change will likely be to Whole Foods’s energy bill. Rather than paying utilities, they will pay Lifecycle Renewables for the energy produced by the generator, which the Marblehead firm will continue to own and maintain. Whole Foods declined to disclose how much they spend on electricity at the Everett plant.
“Bottom line,” Gaunt said, “Whole Foods is going to save money.”