Program trains low-income youth on biodiesel

By Erin Voegele | July 13, 2010
Posted Aug. 3, 2010

New Orleans-based nonprofit Operation Reach Inc. is seeking $25,000 in funding from the Pepsi Refresh Project Do Good for the Gulf program to support a local biodiesel education project. The initiative, titled the "Gulfsouth Youth Biodiesel Project," provides green job training to young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who reside low-income communities in the New Orleans area. Members of the public can vote on the Pepsi website for their favorite project. Up to 10 projects that receive the most votes will be awarded funding.

The goals GYBP of the program are to:
- Provide green job training to at least 50 youth participants, with a minimum 65 percent job or education program placement rate for graduates
- Produce 10,000 gallons of biodiesel for use by local diesel fleets
- Recycle 10,000 gallons of used cooking oil per month
- Conduct outreach to educate at least 500 community members about biodiesel

According to Hamilton Simons-Jones, Operation Reach's chief development officer, the GYBP is now in its second year. "We originally formed this project about a year and half go to accomplish two things," he said. "One is to be a small, biodiesel social enterprise that converts used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel as a …local/regional business run by the nonprofit. The second is to develop green job training…and [expose local] youth to biodiesel…and really use that [experience] as an introduction not only to overall environmental awareness, but also more concrete job training."

Students attend the training program 4 hours a day, 5 days a week. According to Simons-Jones, the program has attracted a wide variety of participants. Some have some college-level training, he said. Others are high school drop-outs who are participating in the program while earning their GED. "We really have a pretty kind of broad spectrum of folks, but most of them haven't had success in the traditional workforce," he said.

The GYBP program graduated its first class of 15 students in April, and the next class of students will begin the program this fall. According to Simons-Jones, the first class of students actually helped assemble the teaching facility, which includes a biodiesel plant. The experience allowed the participating students to earn a construction certification through the National Center for Construction, Education and Research. "[The students] received instruction on pipe fitting, plumbing and carpentry," Simons-Jones continued. "They were a part of helping us build out this teaching facility that produces biodiesel, and then learning about how that all works as well, of course." Depending on the amount of funding that is received, approximately 30 students will be able to participate this fall.

According to Simons-Jones, the education program is divided up into four modules. One features information on the science behind biodiesel production. "They get to understand the chemistry of it, and they actually get some hands on exposure to producing biodiesel," he said. The technical component of the program also includes information on plant safety, and quality testing.

The second module of the program allow students to gain a better understanding of climate change, where fuels come from, the challenges of continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the benefits of renewable energy. The third module includes training on business planning and management, including marketing, research, advertising and sales. The final module involves community leadership training, public and persuasive speaking, and is designed to provide students with the skills necessary to educate the community on the benefits of renewable energy sources, such as biodiesel.

There are not many biodiesel jobs in New Orleans right now, said Simons-Jones. While some students have found work at Operation Reach's biodiesel plant, others have used the program as a stepping stone to pursue bachelor or technical degrees in the renewable sector. "We try to prepare them for a number of different pathways, not just biodiesel, since there are not enough [biodiesel] jobs right now in New Orleans," he continued.

Another component of the program involves more basic educational outreach to community members and students at local high schools. "We are actually working right now with Louisiana Technical College, which has been a great partner with us to be able to offer [this training] as a course open to any student in the community," Simons-Jones said. "We've also had a lot of interest from high school teachers to help them incorporate [some biodiesel training] into their chemistry and science curriculum."

Operation Reach's biodiesel plant is currently producing about 100 gallons per day of biodiesel manufactured from recycled cooking oil. Simons-Jones said the organization is currently working to refine its production process, and plans to scale up to producing approximately 500,000 gallons per year. If awarded, $5,000 of the $25,000 in funding will be used to purchase safety materials and tools for the program's participants. The remaining $20,000 would be used to purchase a biodiesel processer and a vacuum truck for collecting used cooking oil.
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