The Green Scene

For all the complexity surrounding biofuels, one thing is certain: The market for the vegetable-based, cleaner-than-petroleum fuel is expanding.

Goodbye, dirty diesel: Smoky Mountain Biofuels, based in Dillsboro, is in the process of opening 23 new biodiesel pumps. Driver Danny Battista and coowner Alan Begley outside their facility. Jonathan Welch

Take the growing biofuels businesses here in Western North Carolina, for example. Blue Ridge Biofuels, Asheville’s home-grown outfit that converts used fryer oil from local restaurants into clean-burning fuel, opened a new outlet at Peak Oil gas station (129 S. Main St.) in Waynesville this past weekend, and is scheduled to open another one in Black Mountain (108 Black Mountain Ave.) this week.

The business recycles the used grease of some 100 local restaurants—including, most recently, an eatery at the Biltmore Estate—and expects to have nine pumps up and running by the end of the summer. According to EPA statistics, straight biodiesel can result in a 78 percent net reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions, as compared with petroleum-based fuel.

Smoky Mountain Biofuels, located at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, has the capacity to produce about one million gallons of biodiesel per year, using virgin soy oil shipped from Georgia as feedstock.

The company’s innovative facility is powered by methane piped in from a closed landfill, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. In early April, as Rep. Heath Shuler stood by, Smoky Mountain Biofuels unveiled a contract with local fuel distributor Mountain Energy to open 23 new biodiesel stations in the surrounding area, including 10 in Buncombe County. The new pumps will dispense B20—a blend that’s 20 percent biodiesel, which can be pumped into a standard diesel vehicle, without retrofits.

Meanwhile, a long-term, strategic plan released in early April would dramatically expand the state’s biofuels industry and propel it in a new direction. Last August, N.C. Senate bill 2051 established a study group to create a plan for bolstering biofuel, and the group released the North Carolina Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership last month. The nine-point strategy leads with an ambitious goal: By 2017, 10 percent of the liquid fuels sold in North Carolina would come from biofuels grown and produced within the state.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center was a key player in the development of the long-term strategy for biofuels leadership, and the plan supports establishing a “nationally unique public-private partnership facility” where crops would be tested and developed to determine the most promising biofuels feedstocks. Representatives from life sciences and agriculture departments at a few universities across the state also contributed.

Paul Knott, who worked on the plan, heads up the BioNetwork-BioBusiness Center at the A-B Tech campus in Enka, one of five BioNetwork Centers located at community colleges across the state. The centers, Knott explains, “all work toward the goal of creating a world-class workforce for biotechnology sciences.” Enka’s BioBusiness Center lends support to small, life-sciences-based businesses.

“I know that some folks read the word ‘biotechnology’ and they a get a kind of negative response, or at least have a question mark in their mind,” Knott says. “When we talk about biotechnology, just the smallest part of that has to do with manipulating genes. The largest part of it is doing what farmers have been doing for 1,000 years … cross-fertilizing to create new plants.” Ensuring “no deleterious effect on the environment” is a top priority, Knott says.

But elsewhere in the South, the mere mention of growing genetically engineered crops for biofuels is causing a stir. Asheville’s own Dogwood Alliance recently joined a nationwide effort called the Stop GE Trees Campaign, which is currently opposing a possible plantation of non-native, GE eucalyptus trees in Alabama that would be harvested for biofuels. Unknown risks to the ecosystem and adverse impacts to the area’s natural biodiversity top the group’s list of concerns.

Yet with challenges like climate change looming on the horizon, the development of some alternative to fossil fuels is necessary. “I think the key … is to realize that the good old days are gone,” Knott says. “What we thought of as plentiful, cheap fuel is gone.”

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6 thoughts on “The Green Scene

  1. Ken Scott

    My sister Kolleen married Alan Begley. We are very proud of her!

    And, by working on alternatives to gasoline, they’re doing more than anyone in the family right now to end our current and future oil wars!

  2. Alternatives to petroleum are always a good idea, but virgin oil and bio-engeneered vrigin-oil is in no way more sustainable than petrol. collecting used-grease and recycling it into fuel for small-scale use is one thing, but importing virgin oil from other areas only highlights our infastructure’s dependance on automobiles.

    “Bio-fuels” produced form virgin-oil, that is, oil produced solely for the purpose of being turned into a ‘bio-fuel’, requires intense, mono-culture agriculture practices that are environmentally unsustainable. multi-thousand acre mono-culture farms growing corn or soy or rapeseed (canola) destroy eco-systems, add to ground-water polution, destroy topsoil, etc etc etc.

    In addition, bio-engineered crops intensify many of these issues, while adding a plethora of other concerns.

    The idea that virgin “bio-fuels” are environmentally friendly or offer any kind of solution to our current petroleum-based economy is absurd. please do a little more research on this topic before any following reports.

    although i am inspired when i see individuals utilizing waste oil and turning it into, essentially, free fuel, the idea that these asheville companies are doing anything remotely ‘revolutionary’ seems a bit far-fetched. It seems to me they only allow middle-class liberals to placate themselves into believing that we are not all living the problem every day.

  3. Ken Scott

    Silverman, you raise valid arguments. I still believe bringing our source of fuel back home – rather than in far off lands where our large corporations can get away with waging invisible wars – is a step in the right direction. If you don’t like the way Smoky Mountain Biofuels is treating our land, you can stop and see the owners of the small, local company to talk about it. As a guilty liberal who commutes by bike, tends my yard as a fruit/veg. garden, and recycles and saves energy at home, I know I’m only doing a small part. I salute those who are able to find expanded ways to remove us from petroleum dependence. Are you any more able to work on solutions to effiently use solar power than I am? Don’t criticize Smoky Mountain Biofuels; outdo them!

  4. What Blue Ridge Biofuels and Smoky Mountain Biofuels (there is at least a hint of irony in that last name) are doing is incredibly inspiring. but to not hold them up to criticism is rediculous. we, as a nation, use FAR TOO MUCH energy, period. the question is not just what kind, but how much. “bringing our source of fuel back home” is part of the misunderstanding of this topic.

    there is ample research out there if you take the time, that can point out many of the fallacies of the “environmental” nature of bio-fuels. the mention of bio-engineered crops is what stood out to me most in this article. it still seems that the majority of the public has very little understanding of agricultural issues and how they relate to the environment and hot topics like ‘global climate change”

    although i still agree that local individuals taking the time to produce thier own bio-fuels from local waste oil are figuring out an inspiring, creative way to avoid feeling “part of the problem”, it can only be seen as a band-aid over the fractured line of production, distribution, and travel in this country. it is one thing to collect local waste-oil and use it for a small amount of local travel. it is an entirely different thing to grow crops directly for the purpose of producing said fuel. this is why all of the big oil companies (BP, texaco, exxon, et al.) are jumping on the bandwagon.

    The GM (genetically modified) industry, controlled by mega-companies such as Mansanto, are eagerly climbing on the “Bio-Fuel” bandwagon, trying to convince peopel that thier bio-fuels are better for the environment than petroleum, when in fact, they only slightly shift the wieght of the problem from one hand to the other.

    The amount of land available in this country, and more often, the rest of the (developing) world for agricultural purposes is finite. we already use far too much of it in mono-culture agribusiness scenarios, damaging the land and surrounding eco-systems for generations. to now increase the amount of land in production of oil crops can only exacerbate this problem.
    we can not grow even a fraction of what we consume in oil. we will be destroying what small bits of untouched and ‘unutilized’ land we have left to grow more fuel to satisfy our already over-sized needs.

    obviously we have to find a way of living that brings our imports and exports to a minimum, producing the near majority of our own energy (food, fuel, medicine etc etc etc) within our own local bio-regions.

    otherwise, we are only trading one problem for another, while patting ourselves on the back for our genius.

  5. Ken Scott

    Monsanto and friends creep me out too, big time. Of course waste oil is a great alternative fuel, but is the supply enough to make a dent in petroleum demand? Biofuels make another dent. Smoky Mountain Biofuels hasn’t been around long enough yet to solve all our problems. Any resources we can save by not warring over oil is justification enough for me to support biodiesel and accept the danger on our own soil of our own overconsumption. Other people still need to work on mass transit, e-commuting, fostering self-sustaining communities, population control. If far-off wars aren’t inspiring enough of us to do so, hopefully the visibility of these fields will.

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