Biofuel being processed at Eco Energy of Portland, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

By Ramona du Houx

January 3, 2010

Some would find it an extra added treat to eat out at their favorite restaurant, knowing that the oil used to make the meal will be recycled here in Maine to fuel busses, cars and trucks with biodiesel. Eventually that biodiesel might even be used to heat the restaurants.

Jarmin Kaltsas became convinced Portland’s community at large would embrace having their restaurant grease turned into fuel. So at Maine Bio-Fuel, Inc. he’s making it a reality. He said, “I knew Portland was ready for this; the community here is pretty environmentally conscious. I knew people would welcome it.”

Kaltsas didn’t set out to produce biofuels thirteen years ago when he came to Maine, on his way to Colorado. In fact he didn’t expect to stay in Maine. The state captivated him so much, he never made it out West.

“Maine always felt like home,” said Kaltsas. “I fell in love with the state and its people.”

To earn a living, he initially made furniture out or wood he salvaged from old barns. “That was my first recycling effort,” he said. Then he became and antique dealer — with a diesel truck.

“Someone told me, you can run that truck on vegetable oil. So I looked into it and started making biodiesel at home to fuel the truck. Then one day I got home from a show, and there was a note on my door from a neighbor asking if we could meet about a biodiesel program at their farm, for a greenhouse.”

That started the young entrepreneur producing biodiesel on a larger scale.

“The greenhouse we built was called Homegrown; my responsibility was fueling the greenhouse and the vehicles. I built a small processing plant there, which they are still using. That’s when I realized I could do this as a career,” he said.

Soon afterwards a cousin he had never met, Dean Sgouros, contacted him, and a business began to take shape. Now Maine Bio-Fuel, Inc. is in production, off Interstate 95 in Portland.

Kaltsas is president, and Sgouros is vice-president of sales and marketing.

Kaltsas did his research and visited other biofuel processing centers, asked pertinent questions of engineers and assessed the needs of Portland’s community. His goal: to innovate the biodiesel process best he could, so that there would be no waste from the vegetable oil recycling process. His closed-loop process lessens the carbon footprint and is revolutionary.

Biodiesel is made from a chemical process that separates glycerin from vegetable oil and animal fat. The production line starts with a 1,000-gallon container of used cooking oil and ends in a 15,000-gallon storage tank of biodiesel. Along the way, equipment filters food waste, then removes the glycerin for soap making or composting. Methanol is filtered out at the beginning and then returned into the operation later, with the closed-loop process. The inventor’s final wash system ensures that impurities are nearly all eliminated; at the same time the process conserves water.

Maine Bio-Fuel produces their blend of B100 biodiesel by using 100 percent recycled waste cooking oil. The operation is currently estimated to be 80 percent carbon neutral. The company has two trucks that pick up grease from local restaurants, free of charge.

Other biodiesel uses “virgin oil” made from corn, which has become controversial with food shortages around the world and the carbon footprint it creates in transportation.

“Most of the used cooking oil in the U.S., about 80 percent, goes to China. Basically it’s a renewable resource going overseas, creating a huge carbon footprint,” said Kaltsas. Maine Bio-Fuel, Inc.’s goal is a zero-discharge plant with a low carbon footprint.

Environmental ethics are a big part of what drives the pragmatic businessman, Kaltsas. His determination to help the earth become eco-friendly is shared by his investors and coworkers. Their motto is Eco-Energy for Visionaries.

The company started three years ago, before the federal emphasis on green energy but alongside the Baldacci administration’s push for alternative, clean energy sources.

“I’ve done this for pennies on the dollar. We’ve recycled a lot of things in the plant. Our methanol recovery system costs $80,000 from the manufacturer, but I found it from an industrial salvage yard for $30,000. Then I fabricated the parts needed to put it together,” said Kaltsas. “We put the business together on a sensible budget.”

Kaltsas started the plant by taking out a $2-million bank loan, using his home as collateral; then friends became shareholders. Community members, businesses, and other likeminded people gravitated to Kaltsas, wanting to become involved in the movement and in some cases the business.

Maine Bio-Fuels has 11 shareholders.

“I found people that believed in what I was doing, and my vision. I was able to sell them part of the company. I’ve been really fortunate,” said the 34-year-old entrepreneur. “Dean has been with me for three years. Jared Higgins and Jeromy House for two. None of them have received a paycheck. They know that when things come around that they will have a place in the company. They’ve made huge sacrifices.”

Many at the October ribbon-cutting ceremony for the company repeatedly stated that Kaltsas has the ability to absorb information from engineering to business and create what is needed to progress the company. Governor John Baldacci referred to Maine Bio-Fuel as being an example of Maine ingenuity at its best.

“I was very impressed by all the members of the community here, from businesses to state officials to nonprofits and families. Maine Bio-Fuels has a wonderful community foundation. These businessmen are great innovators, representing the entrepreneurial and community-driven spirit that is making Maine a leading state in developing clean, homegrown energy and adding green jobs,” said the governor. “This is Maine Yankee ingenuity at its best. It’s businesses like Maine Bio-Fuels that will solidify Maine’s place as a leader in achieving alternative fuels. There is huge potential here; restaurants could burn the biodiesel they helped create with their waste, and then there are transportation needs.”

Those needs could easily extend 80 miles away to the Massachusetts market, where all diesel fuel sold after 2011 must be blended with two percent biofuel. A provision requires the fuel to deliver a net 50-percent reduction in greenhouse gases when compared with petroleum. Biofuels made from cooking grease automatically meet this standard.

Along with an increase in people filling their tanks with biodiesel, Maine Bio-Fuel hopes for contracts with the city, to supply municipal trucks and school buses.

Maine Bio-Fuel’s current big customers are Independence BioFuel and Global, whose trucks arrive at 51 Ingersoll Drive and fill up just outside Maine Bio-Fuel’s processing center.

The company’s owners deliberately waited until they felt comfortable that their process was sound and that adequate storage was available, before they lined up a lot of restaurants.

“Right now we have about 50 restaurants. We didn’t want to bring on too many restaurants too quickly,” said Kaltsas. “We’re about to start a restaurant campaign. We can process 2,000 gallons a day; with a few changes, that will be 3,500. We’re a million-gallon plant with room to grow.”

As they say, “if the shoe fits”; in this case the shoe is the community’s need fitting into production capabilities.

“I’d like to grow within the geographic area of Portland, where three million gallons of oil are available within a hundred mile radius. I’d like to become a three-million-gallon plant,” said Kaltsas. “I want to grow with what fuel stock is available.”

The innovator encourages communities to get involved in producing their own alternative energy.

“Even at the grass-roots level, small towns could collect the oil in a co-op to be sustainable in their own community. That’s really what we’re doing here in Portland. That’s what this is all about,” said Kaltsas.

This community-minded company opens its doors to anyone interested in an educational tour. They plan to involve schools for field trips and have had art students from the University of Maine paint murals on their storage tanks. Each mural represents the type of oil in the tank. They are also involved with Habitat for Humanity and are developing other ideas to work with the community.

“I’d like to start a summer camp for underprivileged kids. I want to bring in classrooms to teach about alternative energies. Even have them make a pint of biodiesel, with their parents and teachers,” said Kaltsas.

As for future additions to the company, Kaltsas said, “Down the road, we’d like to have a fuel station in town, which would have a garage with a diesel mechanic, so we could do all the conversions on vehicles. Sort of Eagle Mart. Having the fuel at the pump with different blends would give people more choices.”

Kaltsas has not received help from the state yet, because they are only now applying for Pine Tree Zone certification, which would give them ten years of tax breaks.

“We hope to be certified,” said Kaltsas. “I think there are other ways the state could help with restaurant-waste-oil disposal. If there were incentives, like small tax breaks for restaurants, it would help. Or even just a public service announcement on TV would spread the awareness.”

The company is the second commercial-grade refinery in Maine that recycles used cooking oil into biodiesel.

“We’re creating an industry, and we feel good about what we are doing,” said Kaltsas. “Frankly, there is nothing else I’d rather be doing.”