Spokane Journal of Business

Passion for biodiesel fuels small-business owner

Etter hopes other will embrace energy source

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-—Kevin Blocker
Jackie Etter, owner and operator of West Star Biodiesel Inc., says the company operates as a subsidiary of her other company, West Star Construction Inc.

Spokane Valley business owner and resident Jackie Etter says she’s like most people she knows who have a thirst for biodiesel fuel.

“There’s not anybody I know that’s involved with biodiesel that doesn’t have another job,” says Etter, who is the owner and operator of West Star Biodiesel Inc., a small distributor of biodiesel fuel to other small businesses and individuals who, like her, are concerned about the environment.

“Instructors, chemists, and some doctors—you can’t do biodiesel full time here in Spokane because there’s just not enough of a market for it,” says Etter, whose business is based mostly of out of her home, with some operations in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park.

However, she says she’s recently had conversations with facilities department managers at Gonzaga University about possibly supplying the university’s smaller utility vehicles with biodiesel.

Etter says she’s never been able to walk away from the biodiesel industry once she fully understood it as an alternative fuel source.

Etter operates West Star Biodiesel as a subsidiary of West Star Construction Inc., which she has owned and operated since 1990. She worked as a general contractor operating West Star Construction, but in more recent years she has done less general contracting and mostly now runs her business as a dump truck driver, hauling debris from construction sites, she says.

While the market for biodiesel fuel has been low traditionally, Etter points to signs that the trend might be changing soon.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says U.S. biodiesel production is expected to be about 1.6 billion gallons this year, up slightly from a record-high 1.5 billion gallons last year. Biodiesel produced in the Pacific Northwest exceeded 80 million gallons last year.

Washington’s wheat farmers are growing more canola, with the largest number of acres in Spokane, Lincoln, and Douglas counties. Most of it is crushed at the Pacific Coast Canola plant in Warden, Wash. Canola is the most common ingredient in biodiesel production, Etter says.

Biodiesel is made from long-chain fatty acids of the triglyceride molecules found in oils and fats. The process involves the addition of methanol, or ethanol, and a sodium or potassium catalyst to the oils in a process known as transesterification. 

Traditionally viewed as a waste product, used cooking oil, or yellow grease, has become a more valuable commodity in the last decade because of its use in biodiesel production, according to Etter.

“Restaurants had to pay collection services to pick up and dispose of their waste vegetable oil,” Etter says. “But with the industry experiencing some growth, demand and competition for recycled oil has greatly expanded.”

Producers of waste oil now are being compensated better for their used product. Annually, more than 8.5 million gallons of used cooking oil are collected across the Inland Northwest and processed into biodiesel, Etter says.

Biodiesel proponents such as Etter point to research they say shows why it’s more environmentally advantageous to use biodiesel in place of petroleum fuel.

An analysis by the University of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says Washington state’s biodiesel initiatives in recent years have helped the state reduce pollutants and greenhouse gases by more than 107,000 pounds per year. Due to a number of measures, hydrocarbons have been reduced by 67 percent; particulate matter, 47 percent; carbon monoxide, 48 percent; and carbon dioxide, 76 percent, Etter says. 

“Biodiesel can be used like regular diesel to power a diesel engine,” she says.

However, biodiesel users need to be aware of handling considerations upon converting fuels. Diesel is a dirty fuel, and after years of use, a buildup will occur in storage tanks and the engine’s fuel system, according to Etter.

“The solvent properties of the biodiesel will cause the residue from the diesel fuel to make a sludge and will plug up the fuel filter,” she says.

So anyone wanting to run biodiesel will have to be diligent about frequently changing fuel filters until the engine completely burns away the diesel residue. Biodiesel also adds lubricity to fuel, which allows engines to run cooler and smoother than regular diesel, she says.

Etter, 53, has had a career that’s involved a mix of chemistry and construction pursuits. Her father, Pat Michielli, founded Circle M Construction Inc. in Spokane Valley in 1979. Today, the company is Circle M Landscape Inc. and is owned and operated by Etter’s nephew, Brandon Michielli.

“My brothers showed me how to drive trucks when we were young,” Etter says. “My father was angry with them because he didn’t think I was interested in doing it. But I loved it, so he put me to work.”

But Etter also was interested in science, and after working a couple of years in the family business after high school, she enrolled at Gonzaga University and earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry in 1988 at the age of 24.

She went to work for a chemistry lab in Longview, Wash., and after a couple of years decided to return to Spokane.

“When I was in the lab, that’s when I realized I missed being in a truck,” Etter says. “Every day looked the same in the lab. At least in the truck I could get a change of scenery.”

She declines to disclose her company’s annual revenue, but says West Star Biodiesel typically generates less than $7,500 per year.

Etter says her fascination with biodiesel developed in about the mid-2000s, when officials in the state’s energy and agricultural sectors began having more discussions with each other about biodiesel fuel and encouraging Washington wheat farmers to grow more canola.

“I kept hearing more about it, and I just became fascinated with this idea of making my own fuel for my truck,” she says.

Etter reached out to now-retired Jim Armstrong of the Spokane County Conservation District, seeking assistance on how to get started making biodiesel fuel. Armstrong then referred her to Jim Ross, who works for the Washington state Department of Ecology eastern regional office here, who helped Etter build a biodiesel processor.

“I started out going to restaurants asking for their used fry oil,” Etter says.

She then began making biodiesel in her shop at her home. “It’s all highly flammable,” Etter says. “Sometimes my husband and the kids were giving me that ‘Mom, don’t burn the house down’ look.’’’ 

Etter no longer makes her own fuel. Instead, a few times a year, she drives to Grays Harbor, Wash., to purchase biodiesel fuel from Renewable Energy Group Grays Harbor LLC., on a wholesale basis, and she in turn sells it to end users.

“I’ve got a few loyal customers here that buy in bulk,” Etter says.

Etter says she’ll buy at least 2,000 gallons of biodiesel herself this year for her own business operations. Her family has just under 100 acres of farmland and harvests hay annually. Biodiesel fuels the farm equipment.

A useful byproduct of biodiesel production is glycerin, which Etter says construction companies now are discovering that when mixed with water, is highly effective for dust control and reduces the amount of water needed to control dust.

Glycerin can also be refined, and has many uses in industrial products, as well as in food, soap, and cosmetics, she says.

“Few people get it right now when it comes to biodiesel,” Etter asserts. “My hope is that it will one day come to be more of a source of fuel for our country than it is now. I’m just looking for a construction company, a farmer, to give biodiesel a try. There’s always been a lot of fear associated with using it because it takes more TLC in its handling, but the benefits of using it are huge.”

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