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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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PrairieFire Biofuels revs up relationship with city

With about a year-and-a-half of operation behind it, the PrairieFire BioFuels Cooperative is really staring to get its engines running. Last week, they launched a joint program with the City of Madison to collect used cooking oil for recycling into fuel, only the first step in a broader collaboration they hope to develop. The co-op is also working with the Milwaukee Biodiesel Co-op that's just starting the process of forming.

Besides working to build its membership and customer base for vegetable-based fuels, PrairieFire is also working to build a longer-term infrastructure for the resource, one that extends well beyond its full-service shop and pumps located at the intersection of East Washington Avenue and North Street. They're starting by collaborating with the Madison Streets & Recycling Department, in which the city will solicit and collected used cooking oil for delivery to the co-op.

"They came to us," says George Dreckmann, the city's recycling coordinator. The co-op was looking for new sources of used veggie-based oils, he explains, and "asked if there was some way they could work with us to tap into the cooking oil that would become available after Thanksgiving." Dreckmann was interested, though with an eye to a longer-term relationship. "I preferred that we set something up where we could take oil all them time,' he says. "So we talked and here we are."

The city's new biofuel recycling program consists of "special cooking oil collection tanks" located at its Sycamore Avenue and West Badger Road drop-off sites on the east and west sides, respectively. "A few people have dropped stuff off," Dreckman says, though not enough yet in the last week for PrairieFire to pick-up a full 55-gallon load. "We're just getting started," he continues, noting that the city's next step will be to develop trial relationships with a few restaurants to collect their used cooking oil.

Word of the collection is increasing drop-offs at the PrairieFire station, too. "We've recovered about 25 to 30 gallons," says Jeff Barnhart, a co-op accountant, mechanic, and member of its board of directors. "Some city just thought they can bring the cooking oil right to us, which is fine too."

The city is getting a couple of things in return for collecting and providing fryer leftovers to the co-op. "The next step," says Dreckmann, is that conversations will begin with the city engineering and sewer departments, with an eye towards involving them in the program. "I think the sewer utility is going to look to convert a couple of trucks," he says, to kick off the city's use of the fuel.

"That's something we've been talking about for awhile," confirms Barnhart. "They have a couple of vehicles they want to convert and start testing the experimental technology. That's what it's called," he continues while noting its hundred-year history, "experimental." Barnhart says the co-op is hoping to eventually be able to help the city become more green by using more biofuel. This relationship is still in its early stages, though, as the city will be facing numerous choices in terms of specifications and budget should it look to have the co-op start converting any vehicles.

By collecting the cooking oil and providing it to PrairieFire, the city is also reducing its own waste nuisance. "They're benefiting because this time of the year they're getting a lot of vegetable oil dropped off illegally at motor oil and leaf collection sites," says Barnhart. "It's the city's headache to have to get rid of it. Now it's getting recycled." The co-op, of course, gets a hand in saving the time and labor necessary for sourcing oil ready for reuse.

How far could this relationship go? "Who knows?" notes Barnhart. "I'm not sure where it's going to lead. As we work together and develop a relationship, we'll see how far it goes. We're all for expanding and making Madison one of the leaders in biofuels."

PrairieFire is looking beyond Madison at the same time, meanwhile. They're helping with the planning for a brand new Milwaukee Biodiesel Co-op, which just started getting together in October. This relationship could go as far as a direct affiliation or merger should the organizers in Milwaukee elect to do so, Barnhart notes, as the infant oil recycling industry starts to develop across the state.

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