Martin McNabb of Harmonious Enterprises

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Biodiesel pioneer from Coombs still living the green

Entrepreneur converts recycled cooking oil into alternative energy source

As the sticker price of gasoline at B.C. pumps climbed in the latter part of the 2000s, Martin McNabb filled the tanks of his two trucks and his 1985 Mercedes sedan with a song on his lips, a lift in his step and a wallet lodged firmly in his pocket.

After years of collecting used cooking oil from mid-Island businesses and converting it into biodiesel, these were the years of payback, the Coombs entrepreneur and semi-retired teacher noted.

“I have three vehicles and I’ve calculated that over 16 years of making biodiesel, I figure I’ve saved over $70,000,” said McNabb, 58, owner of Harmonious Enterprises. “I was the only person smiling when the price was going up.”

In his original vision, $70,000 would have been small potatoes.

“When I started, I wanted to get into the energy business,” said McNabb, who has backgrounds in chemistry and in construction in addition to a teaching career through which he remains on-call for the Alberni Valley School District. “I started out trying to build a biodiesel plant. It turns out the big energy players don’t like that.

“And the large corporations have friends in the political arena who can make you jump through a lot of hoops.”

He was inspired initially, he said, by a friend who led by example, driving a vehicle with exhaust that smelled like french fries.

“This all started with a friend of mine,” he said. “In 2001 he bought a city transit bus and drove from Mile Zero (the other end) of the Trans-Canada Highway using used vegetable oil,” said McNabb.

While a diesel engine can be made to run on straight cooking oil, McNabb said, it requires traditional fossil diesel to start up, due to the higher burn point on the oil. The engine must also be modified with special heaters to keep the vegetable oil at the proper temperature for combustion.

McNabb’s dream of a wide-ranging alternative fuel empire has never materialized on the scale he envisioned. But his efforts to turn recycled cooking oil into a carbon-neutral, alternative fuel source have powered his own vehicles, sparked a ‘tidal change’ in the industry and indirectly led him to create a new product that is being successfully marketed throughout Western Canada.

Last week, McNabb embarked on a quest to recognize his partners in this venture. Returning to the site where it all started, he presented a certificate to French Creek Marine Pub administrator Shauneen England marking the 15 years since the business first allowed him to install a 1,000-litre heating oil tank behind the pub and haul off its used cooking oil.

“It’s worked out very well for us,” said England. “We used to have to pay to have the oil taken away.”

When McNabb approached mid-Island restaurants and pubs beginning in 2002 with an offer to haul away their used oil — for free! — it represented a savings for those businesses. The Island’s big player in the oil recycling business, West Coast Reduction of Nanaimo, was at that time charging customers to come and haul off their oil.

Eventually, the biodiesel trend-setter established a collection “empire” that at one time ranged from Campbell River to Nanaimo to Tofino. He retains the right of collection at the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District landfill, where he has a bin placed for collection of small, home-use quantities of cooking oil.

Initially, McNabb blended the oil with alcohol and esters to create his own biofuel. But what he could produce on his Coombs property never reached a commercially viable stage, and he settled into a level of production that basically covered his own needs and provided biodiesel fuel for friends in the area.

But he stumbled on a new use for the oil about 12 years ago, while speaking with a friend who was working in construction.

“I had a friend who was spraying diesel on concrete forms to get them to release, and his wife wouldn’t wash his clothes because she said they made everything smell like diesel,” McNabb recalls. “I said, ‘Have you tried cooking oil?'”

It turns out the friend actually had tried oil, but found it too sticky for the purpose. But the chat got McNabb thinking about the process used to create biodiesel.

“I changed up the formula and discovered a blend that’s even better than diesel (for forms),” McNabb said. “You knock one board off a form and the rest just fall away.”

He named his new, fully biodegradeable product Green Release and began sharing it with friends to test in the field. Based on their results, he has since moved into the wholesale market, shipping the product as far away as Edmonton. Locally, residents may find the solution at Slegg Lumber, at the Windsor Plywood Locations in Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni, and at Port Alberni’s Beaver Creek Home Centre.

But even as this new business was taking off, he discovered other small players had discovered the joys of homemade biodiesel or converted diesel engines that can run a vehicle on straight motor oil. “It kind of started with the arrival of these Japanese Delicas, the diesel van you drive from the right side,” said McNabb. “I started noticing customers in restaurants finishing their dinner, then asking if they could take the (cooking) oil.”

Since McNabb was not necessarily a regular customer at the diners where he was collecting oil, he felt he had no exclusive rights over the diners’ exisiting customer base.

“That’s when I started paying for oil,” said McNabb, who now pays 10 cents per liter for the recycled oil. And McNabb’s move set off a chain reaction. The big rendering players, who had essentially tried to ignore his presence when he was collecting without charging restaurants, now had to step up with payment of their own to retain their share, McNabb said.

“I was the first one to cut into their business, and they didn’t like it,” he said. “They fought me tooth and nail.”

McNabb continues to collect from regular customers, with a portion of his oil going to the Green Release he produces at his own Coombs facility. Much of the rest is sold to Vancouver-based Consolidated Biofuels, the Lower Mainland’s biggest player, and the upstart Green Earth Biofuels, from which McNabb buys back the biodiesel he uses in his own vehicles.

While he saved lots of money when fuel costs were high, McNabb said, the downturn in energy prices in the past couple years actually drove small biodiesel producers out of business.

“I sent 60 tons to Consolidated at the beginning of last summer; I had it stockpiled,” he said. “For the longest time, because the cost of oil dropped so much, any biodiesel producer on the margin went under because the price just dropped. I stockpiled; my place is basically a tank farm.”

More information can be found at McNabb’s Green Release website.