WATERTOWN, N.Y. — Behind restaurants and next to the trash cans and delivery doors — places diners normally don't visit on a night out — a battle of business is raging. The prize: thousands of gallons of used grease.
With the price of gasoline hovering around $3 a gallon and higher, consumers are turning to alternative energy sources. Corn and grass are used to make ethanol, and wind turns giant turbines that generate electricity. And once restaurateurs are done frying chicken wings, mozzarella sticks and battered fish, the used oil and shortening aren't just discarded. They are being used to run cars and boilers.
Formerly, restaurateurs had to pay to have that dirty, viscous waste hauled away. But now the grease provides an inexpensive fuel alternative, creating competition and all but eliminating disposal costs for restaurants.
"We're having a grease war," said P. Michael Leeder, owner of Box Car Biofuel, Adams.
Leeder said he picks up about 400 gallons of used grease a week. He strains out the chunks and then uses the remaining fluid to power his car and heat his home. He also sells it to Berry Bros. Lumber Co., which uses the oil that may have recently fried a wonton to provide power for the lumber mill.
Diesel cars can be converted to run on vegetable fuel with a few alterations such as equipment that heats oil to keep it in a liquid form before it's injected into the engine and burned. Waste oil boilers also require alterations, such as a preheater and a pump that does not get clogged by impurities in the oil.
Charles G. Wert, who owns Wing Wagon on Public Square in Watertown, said he used to pay Baker Commodity, Rochester, a small fee to pick up his melted shortening, but he recently switched to the smaller, local Box Car Biofuels after Leeder said he would take the grease for free.
"Paying nothing is better than having to pay for someone to take it out," Wert said. "It's gotten to the point that people are fighting over this."