Whole Foods to use Veggie Oil to Power Stores

In the Whole Foods Market Inc. commissary a few blocks from Route 99, the same canola oil that's being used to fry Asian shrimp balls and popcorn chicken will soon help power the walk-in freezer and the overhead lights.

The viscous chardonnay-colored liquid already flows throughout most of the plant, where employees prepare food sold in the region's Whole Foods stores. It starts in a 275-gallon bin on the second floor, slides down a pipe, and gushes through a spigot in the "cold kitchen." Commissary chefs turn a tap to get oil for salad dressings and hummus, or for deep-frying in the "hot kitchen."

By next year, a generator that's powered by the used cooking oil will provide all the electricity needed here - about 2 million kilowatt hours a year.

Each week, about 1,200 gallons of oil go into making the more than 240,000 pounds of prepared food items that customers will buy at 43 stores in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey.

"By us being able to do this, it's approximately the same electricity that 200 households would use. So we're helping take that stress off the [regional power] grid," said Kathy Loftus, who oversees sustainable engineering, maintenance, and energy for the Texas-based supermarket chain.

The cooking-oil generator, which will hook into the plant's electricity distribution system and operate in tandem with National Grid's utility lines, is expected to save Whole Foods at least 20 percent of the commissary's energy and waste costs, which the company declined to detail.

Erin O'Brien, a spokeswoman for ISO New England, which operates the regional power grid, said efforts like Whole Foods' help maintain grid reliability, slow the growth of demand for electricity, and lessen the volatility of prices. Since 2003, O'Brien added, the capacity from such efforts in New England has almost quintupled, from 400 megawatts to 1,900 megawatts. That's enough to power at least 1.4 million homes.

"We've seen significant growth," O'Brien said. "What we've found in operating New England's power grid is that every small step, when taken together, can really add up."

Whole Foods said its canola oil-powered generator - it's scheduled to be installed in January by Lifecycle Renewables Inc., of Marblehead - is just the latest in its long-standing mission to become as eco-friendly as possible. For instance, a fuel cell powers a Whole Foods store in Connecticut, and the same technology will be used at a store scheduled to open next year in Dedham. Also, a wind turbine is expected to be installed at a Whole Foods seafood facility in Gloucester. Already, most of the company's stores manage to keep about 80 percent of their waste from going to landfills.

The Everett plant follows the same practice.

Five years ago, a waste hauler was picking up about nine tons of trash at the commissary three times a week. Today, the plant composts about three tons of food, trimmings, and waxed cardboard every week, and recycles half a ton of cardboard daily. As a result, trash pickups now add up to 18 tons a month.

During a recent walk-through at the plant's massive kitchens, Chris Austin, North Atlantic kitchens facility team leader for Whole Foods, traced the crucial role oil already plays.

"Michael over here is frying up popcorn chicken," Austin said, referring to one of the cooks. "After it's in the fry-a-lator we'll take it out, cool it down, and then put it in a receptacle for collection and using in the generator."

For now, the used oil - which the commissary is also collecting from Whole Foods stores - is being stored in 55-gallon drums.

"I think the facility is showing that it can be done," said Lee Kane, whose official title is eco-czar of the North Atlantic region. "It should be a benchmark for any facility like this."

Environmental advocate Seth Kaplan, who works with the Conservation Law Foundation, which has offices throughout New England, said he thinks such efforts - on a large or a small scale - play well with consumers concerned about climate change and other environmental problems.

"The key is if they do enough of the little things right and people have confidence that they are doing many, many things to improve their environmental performance, it builds confidence that when you spend your money there you are voting with your wallet in favor of the right choices," Kaplan said. "In business-speak, it enhances the brand." [via boston]

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