Running on waste
In rural North Carolina, a local approach to biodiesel.
Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 04:22 PM
The small, rural town of Pittsboro, N.C., sits nestled in the rolling hills of the state’s Piedmont region. Life in Pittsboro moves at what one might call a “relaxed” pace. But even on its slowest day, something quite revolutionary is taking place just a five-minute drive from downtown. There, at the end of a long gravel road, lies the new processing plant and offices of Piedmont Biofuels, a 12-person biodiesel collective, nationally recognized for its ultra-green, people-over-profit approach to making fuel.
“No wars required,” says Leif Forer, cofounder of the collective, describing one major benefit of biodiesel. Forer may be right; biodiesel consists of only three ingredients, and none of them need come from the Middle East. To make the fuel, one only needs an oil or fat source, a small amount of the alcohol methanol, and an even smaller amount of a catalyst, such as potash. The real issue is where to obtain enough of that oil.
To secure the vast quantities of oil needed to manufacture, say, 50 million gallons of fuel a year, the larger biodiesel companies in the United States rely almost exclusively on virgin oils. This practice causes myriad problems — the loss of valuable land previously used for food crops, an increase in GMO soy and corn mono-cropping, and entrusting our collective energy future to just a few monolithic corporations. The business and production model developed by Piedmont Biofuels addresses each of these problems head on.
After perfecting their blends in a converted house for two years, making just enough fuel for their small staff and a few local enthusiasts, this past October, Piedmont Biofuels moved the bulk of their operations to a million-gallon-a-year, 8,000-square-foot plant just down the road. A poetic twist: The plant’s previous tenant built ceramic warheads for the U.S. military.
It was in these new quarters that Forer, along with co-founders Lyle Estill and Rachel Burton, decided put E.F. Schumacher’s famous “small is beautiful” maxim to the test. So, after years of reading up on the benefits of localized economies, the trio adopted a new policy: All of the plant’s oil inputs, as well as all of its biodiesel sales, would be bought and sold within a 100-mile radius of their Pittsboro facility.
Forer says that the supply side of the new policy involved “looking at what we have readily and locally available in high quantities.” For example, North Carolina has an abundance of hog and chicken farms, which produce fat as a waste product. “So we’ve been making fuel out of chicken fat,” he says. “It’s all made out of chickens that are grown here and processed within one hundred miles of Pittsboro.”
At the other end of the supply chain, keeping Piedmont’s finished fuel within the 100-mile range required an extensive biodiesel “trail,” a series of small pumping stations strategically scattered across the region. When all 1 million gallons of Piedmont’s eventual supply comes “online,” Forer calculates it will be able to fuel some 1,800 private vehicles per year.
Although biodiesel currently accounts for only 0.2 percent of all diesel use in the United States, producers both small and large are finding their markets growing faster than their supply of available fuel. One might imagine that such rapid growth would have Forer dreaming of early retirement, but he has other ideas.
“If we are successful at what we are ultimately trying to do, which is to promote sustainability, then we will put ourselves out of business, which would be the happiest day of my life,” he says. Then, with a qualifying laugh, he adds, “but I know that that’s not going to change overnight, that people aren’t going to stop driving overnight, so in the interim, we’ll be busy making fuel.”
Story by Bryan Newman. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2007.