Keeping energy local with Maine Standard Biofuels

Jarmin Kaltsas started Maine Standard Biofuels up in 2004 when he started dabbling in making his own fuel out of vegetable oil in 2004. Almost 10 years later the business employes 13 people and produces 10,000 gallons of fuel per week.

I really like the idea of the growth of a local biofuels production powerhouse as the product is one sourced from local waste. Maine Standard Biofuels takes used cooking oil from over 800 restaurants from Portland to Boston, they bring it back to their plant, filter it into high grade bio-diesel, and then send it out to local fleets that bring the goods back to the restaurants the oil is sourced from from. The system is very closed loop.

A lot of local are conscious of eating and drinking locally, all which is awesome, but folks don’t normally think about recycling local. Maine Standard Biofuels is working to close that loop.

I talked with Kalsas, who also serves as the company’s President, Intern Alex Pine, and Communications Guy (technical term) Michael Leonard about the industry, the politics of their product, and how many gallons of vegetable oil each Mainer consumes per year.

How much fuel to you produce?

Jarmin: We are up to about 10,000 gallons per week right now. Typically the amount of cooking oil produced follows the population. In Maine it’s at about 1.2 to 1.3 million gallons produced annually.

So a gallon of oil per person? I consume a lot more than that. Some people are skimping on their oil consumption.

Jarmin: Yeah, right? I certainly do my share. But especially with these sea food restaurants that pop up in the summer, at Clam Bake we must pick up 500 or 600 gallons per month. I actually think the overall number of gallons might even be up a little bit because it is such a vacation spot. Barber Food produces a lot, and the fast food places too.

What are the politics surrounding your industry?

Jarmin: Back in 2010 there was a blender’s credit, which was a federal subsidy offered to help get us off the ground. In 2011 that credit went away and most of the industry stopped production. In 2012 it was reintroduced, which has allowed the industry to get off its feet. Right now you are seeing people who are now at the highest rates of production they have ever been at and that includes us. The subsidies have allowed us to reinvest in the business and get a firm foundation to grow the business. The credit is set to expire at the end of this year and so for businesses that are trying to plan new growth and hires, it is hard when there is so much uncertainty around it.

Alex: It’s kind of a funny beast, this credit, because a lot of these subsidies came out of the ethanol industry. For a number of reasons, including our climate, you can’t use pure ethanol in the US and so we use a blend of 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol. Because of that, the mindset around all of these subsidies was to incentivize making these blends. For our fuel, you can run 100% biodiesel, but we have to put a little petroleum fuel in with our fuel in order to get the blender’s credit. We put in just enough to satisfy the requirements. So hopefully the expiration of this credit will pave the way for remaining it as a producers credit instead, something that would actually support the people growing the industry.

Jarmin: Exactly. As it is set up now, the petroleum industry stands to benefit quite a bit from these blends. For us, we want to get away from the subsidy, of course, but having it in place has allowed us to grow. At present we employ 12 people and just hired a new driver today and a 13th employee who will start next week.

With the entire Oakhurst fleet of trucks running on biodiesel, it would appear that we are getting to a place where it is no longer a niche product.

Michael: I know a guy who was having a conversation with a big name, a big right wing country star, and he was telling him all about the benefits to the environment that come with using biodiesel. The guy said he didn’t really care about all of that. When my friend started talking about the jobs being created here in the US, how we are not shipping this money off to the Middle East for production, and how it is actually coming in cheaper than the market price for standard diesel, that had his ear.

Alex: There is something in it for everyone. It is the most American fuel out there. If you believe jobs should stay here in the US, that’s what biodiesel makes possible. If you care about the environment, it supports the environment. If you care about recycling and longevity, it helps make things last longer. If you are a performance guy, it keeps your engine cooler, allows you to have better race times and more.

Michael: It is beyond reproach.

Photo Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.