Sundance Renewables has been recycling used cooking oil since 2004 at the first community-based biodiesel production plant in the UK. This innovative not-for-profit workers co-operative and social enterprise collects the oil from a wide variety of local outlets, converting it into a quality low-emissions alternative to diesel.
Biodiesel emissions are much cleaner than conventional diesel with significant reductions for pollutants such as carbon monoxide, particulates, sulphates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, reducing the associated health risks.
There's also a carbon saving. An ordinary car burning biodiesel emits less than 40g/km of CO2, which is significantly less than the average figures for new cars burning conventional diesel of around 120g/km.
Sundance's fuel is used in standard diesel engines with no modifications to save around 3,500kg of CO2 emissions per year per average driver.
Setting up a cooperative
Sundance is Wales' premier biodiesel manufacturer. Over 400 businesses and individuals purchase fuel through the Friends of Sundance scheme, either locally or delivered free across South and West Wales. This contributes to community recycling and bolsters the local economy.
Like most good things, Sundance Renewables has been a long time in the making. The idea of a worker co-operative was first explored by Sundance founder and director Jan Cliff in the early 1980s when working with Northumberland Energy Workshop - a pioneering wind energy co-operative.
Sundance Renewables was incorporated in 2002 with the help of a ‘SpinOut' loan from Swansea University. At the time, Jan was studying for a Masters research degree in Recycling Technology, and wrote her thesis on the feasibility of small scale biodiesel production.
The Sundance pilot plant was launched in 2004 and was the first time an industrial process of this nature was run as a not-for-profit enterprise.
Last plant standing
Although Jan, with the help and support of husband Joe, has been the guiding force behind Sundance, there are also 2 full time and 5 part time staff. Everyone contributes to the daily management of Sundance's work and can share the responsibility for, and success of, the business.
The 400+ 'Friends of Sundance' (businesses and individuals) who use the biodiesel have provided financial investment and helped create the UK's first community supported biodiesel project - much along the lines of community supported agriculture.
Sundance has also helped to form a secondary co-operative called the Good Fuel Co-operative. The challenge is to ensure that no usable oil goes to waste and that community-based, not-for-private-profit businesses can thrive in what is an incredibly challenging commercial environment.
The Good Fuel Co-op helps to purchase additional supplies of used cooking oil that would otherwise be exported by the big oil collectors to Europe. The Co-op is an Industrial and Provident Society and has a current prospectus that is attracting plenty of interest.
However, HM Revenue and Customs has recently overturned its previous approval of these shares as eligible for Enterprise Investment Scheme tax relief and this decision is affecting a wide range of IPS's.
Fortunately, Good Fuel Co-op investors are undeterred and are urging the co-op to use their investments to help developments.
Big is beautiful for UK plc
Indeed, the co-op survives despite a range of counter-productive Government policies. In November 2005, the UK Government announced it would introduce a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) that requires transport fuel suppliers to ensure a proportion of their sales are from renewable sources.
The RTFO was introduced in April 2008 and it is estimated that this policy alone should save 1 million tonnes of carbon at an obligation level of 5 per cent.
Regrettably, political support for the local production and consumption of biodiesel is completely lacking, as the Government gives subsidies and tax incentives only to large-scale producers and importers of biofuel 'blends' from overseas.
This comes as a real disappointment to small-scale producers. A recent paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production has identified that there is actually enough used cooking oil (1,460,000 tonnes) in the UK to meet the RTFO target, so there is no need to sully the production of biofuels with unsustainable imports.
Jan hopes that the government will learn to work for local manufacturers of biodiesel rather than against them. She would like Sundance to be seen as a community model worth replicating around the country.
Why cooking oil is better than biofuels from crops
There is still a lot of confusion and controversy surrounding the differences between reused cooking oil and pure vegetable oil grown specifically for fuel, SVO, (straight vegetable oil). Reused cooking oil goes through a process of cleaning, transesterification, and refining, which shortens the lipid 'chains', before it is used as fuel. However, once processed, certain diesel engines can run on 100 per cent blends of this biodiesel with no engine adjustments or mixes with mineral diesel needed.
One of the great benefits of using biodiesel made from used vegetable oil is in utilising a waste product, which until recently has been poured down drains or sent to landfill. According to research by the BBC, the catering industry in the UK produces about 50-90 million litres of waste cooking oil each year, while Ireland discards more than 10,000 tonnes of waste vegetable oil annually.
Although this sounds like a huge amount the fact is that there's simply not enough cooking oil in the UK to take over from diesel entirely, according to the Government's Better Regulation Commission. Current waste oil supplies could only feasibly power around one-350th of the UK's cars. In fact, the Energy Systems Research Unit estimates that the UK can only produce enough biodiesel from waste vegetable oil to displace less than 0.6 per cent of conventional diesel.
The danger with figures like this is that the use of recycled biofuels may not attract the attention that they should as a valuable source of energy that can be obtained, processed and used locally, and which could still play a useful part in reducing the large contribution that road transport makes to our carbon dioxide emissions
SVO's on the other hand include any and all oils from plants that have been specifically grown for their use as a fuel. The most commonly known of these are rapeseed and palm oil. The two major problems that can come with these oils is their displacement of food crops and the destruction of habitat as land is cleared for production.
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