Finding creative energy-efficient solutions isn't exactly novel for James Peret. As a child he recalls his father longing to place a water wheel in the stream behind his childhood home to “make a little power,” a profound memory he attributes to inspiring his career.
These days the Massachusetts-based engineer makes more than a little power. As CEO and president of Owl Power, a developer of clean-energy systems, Peret already has three utility patents to his name and, with the advent of Vegawatt, he's poised to make a push into the foodservice industry.
Over the past four years Owl Power has been diligently working on Vegawatt, a refrigerator-sized cogeneration system that would allow food establishments to reduce their needs for electricity and natural gas supplied from utility companies. Instead the companies would use their used vegetable oil to create power and hot water. With this option, eatery owners have the potential to save close to a $1,000 a month.
“As businesses everywhere are taking a hard look at their energy costs and their environmental impact, Vegawatt enables restaurant owners to help themselves and the planet at the same time,” Peret says.
After experimenting with home-brewed biodiesel (a renewable carbon-neutral fuel derived from a range of plant oils and animal fats) and noticing some of the difficulties associated with it, Peret turned his attention to used vegetable oil. He says although a valuable alternative, biodiesel production requires the use of potentially harmful chemicals like methanol and lye. It also creates glycerin, a waste product that must be properly disposed of and can be costly.
“Transporting biodiesel is the most expensive part of the process, but with Vegawatt there's absolutely no transportation involved,” Peret says. “The energy used to carry the fryer to the machine is minimal.”
It doesn't hurt too that unlike biodiesel, vegetable oil waste is free. It's no secret restaurant owners are continually seeking efficient ways to store and rid used vegetable oil accumulated during food preparation. Failure to properly dispose of the oil can quickly lead to sanitation and health problems, attracting both rodents and causing odor.
While Vegawatt has yet to debut on the market (Peret anticipates a few more months before full-scale production), it's already garnering praise from industry professionals anxious to cut costs and promote environmental change in their operations.
“The product’s environmental merits are outstanding, says Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. “By supporting renewable fuel, the Vegawatt reduces the amount of traditional, petroleum-based, nuclear, coal, and large hydropower fuel typically associated with energy production.”
George Carey, owner of Finz Seafood and Grill in Massachusetts, says the system allowed him to significantly reduce his restaurant's energy footprint and costs. “My largest line-item expense is runaway utility costs,” Carey says. Finz is the only establishment to use Vegawatt before its release, although Peret says two more restaurants are preparing to implement the machine.