Biodiesel blooms in Asheville

If Blue Ridge Biofuels has anything to say about it, every hippie bus in West Asheville should be able to dose on homemade biodiesel fuel this summer. By July, the group plans to open a publicly accessible pump in a part of town “where a lot of alternative people are,” says spokesperson Matt Siegel — either on a Roberts Street lot adjacent to the West Asheville RiverLink Bridge or at a gas station on Haywood Road, according to director Brian Winslett.

Biodiesel is diesel fuel made wholly or partly from cooking fat or vegetable oil. And Blue Ridge’s B100 fuel — 100 percent, unblended biodiesel cooked up at a local organic farm using grease the group’s volunteers recycle from local restaurants — will be sold at a discounted price to anyone who joins the cooperative, which now has about 40 members. One of the goals of the group (formerly known as the Asheville Biodiesel Cooperative) is to develop biodiesel blends that can be used for heating homes.

Siegel announced the coming of the new facility on March 17 to an eager audience assembled for a first-of-its-kind meeting of current and would-be biofuel producers, distributors and consumers organized by the Land-of-Sky Regional Council at its headquarters off Leicester Highway.

“This is a roomful of distributors and people in the industry,” marveled Ray Cockrell, the director of Warren Wilson College’s auto shop and motor pool. Cockrell, who hopes to be one of BRB’s regular customers, told the meeting he’s negotiating with equipment manufacturer John Deere to buy some of the company’s new biodiesel tractors for his school’s extensive agricultural operations.

“John Deere is begging for you to use biofuels,” Cockrell told the crowd. On March 4, the tractor-maker rolled out the first of its new line of tractors burning B2, a blend of conventional diesel fuel containing 2 percent biodiesel.

These developments appear to represent one face of a national schizophrenia concerning energy use. On the one hand, Congress seems to be leaning toward drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge rather than enacting tighter gas-mileage requirements. And General Motors is choosing to demolish its 6-year-old fleet of innovative EV1 rechargeable electric cars rather than sell them to the public — despite a widely publicized protest vigil by consumers wanting to buy them at any price.

On the other hand, you have John Deere and BioWillie. That’s the brand of biodiesel that country-music star and FarmAid hero Willie Nelson is now marketing to the nation’s long-haul truckers.

And unlike GM, John Deere is heeding the demands of its customer base: American farmers. Whereas environmentalists want to see the nation’s trucks, buses and tractors filling up on BioWillie because it’s far cleaner than petro-diesel and more than three times more energy-efficient to produce, farmers are pushing for biodiesel because they see all those soybean squeezings as a huge potential boon to the country’s ailing agricultural sector, alt-fuel insiders say.

“Biodiesel has grown from nothing in 2000 to over 5 million gallons [of B20, the most common biodiesel blend] in 2004,” notes Anne Tazewell, the N.C. Solar Center’s alternative-fuels program manager. The state-sponsored agency is doing its part to accelerate that trend by making grants to alt-fuel producers and fleets.

Regional grease

And here in Western North Carolina, Warren Wilson isn’t the only institution that’s eager to make use of the new fuels. UNCA is helping Blue Ridge Biofuels obtain national transportation-fuel certification so the school can use a 20-percent (and, eventually, 50-percent) blend of the cooperative’s biodiesel in its campus shuttles, Transportation Planner Yuri Koslen reports.

And Buncombe County Solid Waste Director Bob Hunter, whose fleet already runs on biodiesel, announced that the county also wants to convert 15 ambulances to the fuel and hopes eventually to use methane gas produced by decomposing vegetable matter at the county landfill to power vehicles designed to run on compressed natural gas, such as the two Chevrolet Monte Carlos the Sheriff’s Department is converting to CNG. (Till then, they’ll fuel up at the city of Asheville’s soon-to-open CNG facility across from McCormick Field.) The Blue Ridge Parkway also is looking into biodiesel, staffer Mike Ryan reports.

Privately owned local fleets are also getting on the bandwagon. Hart Distributing of Weaverville, a wine-and-beer distributor, is operating two biodiesel delivery trucks, along with several propane, CNG and flex-fuel vehicles, employee Andrew Street told Xpress. (Flex-fuel cars can run on either gasoline or an alternative fuel.)

Eastern Tennessee and the North Carolina piedmont are a year or two ahead of WNC on the biodiesel wave, Bill Eaker reports. Eaker, the director of Land-of-Sky’s Clean Air Campaign, organized the March 17 meeting. He brought in guest speakers representing users and distributors from those areas to share their tips on working with biodiesel — including its unique risks.

“If you use B100 and spill it on your truck, it will clean the paint off your vehicle,” Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, wryly warned. From December 2003 to December 2004, the public/private partnership boosted biodiesel use in east Tennessee from one guy driving a converted 1984 Volvo to nearly 90,000 gallons’ worth of B100 distributed to local fleets. And the larger Southeastern Alternative Fuels Coalition, which Overly also helps direct, is now working to make biodiesel available at strategic points along the area’s Interstate corridors. (At the moment, the closest pump to Asheville is in Newport, Tenn., says Eaker.)

Vegans take note: “Animal fat jells at a higher temperature than vegetable oil” and can easily clog engines and fuel tanks in cold weather, cautioned Barry Greenberg, director of maintenance for the Knoxville Area Transit Authority. He should know: Every vehicle at the University of Tennessee and every public-transit bus in Knoxville runs on biodiesel. Riders love it, Greenberg reports, because there’s no smoke, no diesel smell, and less noise than with conventional diesel. Every pollutant except nitrogen oxide is substantially reduced (compared to petroleum-based diesel), and an additive now available even knocks down NOx levels.

Knoxville Transit, says Greenberg, is the only such agency in the country that actually converts fat and grease into biodiesel. That conversion process is what allows biodiesel to be used in any diesel engine — but to gain widespread acceptance, an infrastructure of producers and distributors such as Blue Ridge Biofuels and the larger Piedmont Biofuels needs to be developed.

Do-it-yourself “veggie diesel,” on the other hand, can be pumped straight from any restaurant’s grease trap into a diesel vehicle’s fuel tank — but only if a conversion kit (such as those sold locally by Energy Liberty, a company owned by Asheville resident Dave Goree) has been installed.

Pioneering veggie-diesel grease cars traveling coast-to-coast on free french-fry oil have galvanized the American public’s interest in biofuels. But it will probably be the biodiesel pumps now beginning to pop up in gas stations at freeway exits that will really help nudge alternative fuels into the mainstream. And if folks like those who came to the St. Patrick’s Day meeting in Asheville have their way, those pumps may help restore the green to America’s farm fields and put some of the blue back in our skies.

Bill Eaker certainly hopes so. “You kind of had the sense,” he told Xpress after the meeting, “that things are going to happen as a result of those people getting together.”

For more information, see the Piedmont Biofuels blog (http://biofuels.coop/index.php), the National Biodiesel Board’s Web site (www.biodiesel.org), or Blue Ridge Biofuels’ Web site (www.blueridgebiofuels.com).

Rust could unhinge oil

At the moment, the American biodiesel movement’s wagon is hitched to a staple of U.S. agribusiness, the soybean. But a rapidly spreading plant disease, Asiatic soybean rust, may force biodiesel producers to turn to other oil-rich crops.

The damaging fungus was first detected stateside in Louisiana last fall, and its spores could blow into North Carolina’s fields this summer, N.C. State University plant researchers warned in a March 24 press release. The costly fungicide soy farmers may have to spray to stave off the blight would drive up the price of soy-based biodiesel, producers noted at the Land-of-Sky meeting. B20 biodiesel currently averages 13c a gallon more than petroleum diesel, but new federal tax credits are expected to offset this price differential.

There are plenty of agricultural alternatives to soy oil, however. The French biodiesel industry is built on rapeseed, and researchers in Colorado are studying oily varieties of mustard seed that can grow like weeds even on waste land. And speaking of weed, cannabis advocates argue that it’s only the federal war on marijuana that hinders the seeds of hemp, its high-oil but no-high cousin, from regaining their former glory as a bountiful source of fuel.

Even ocean-grown algae could support a world biodiesel industry, according to renewable-energy researchers. But despite the wide variety of oil-producing plants and seeds provided by nature, a tough nut for the biodiesel industry to crack may be agribusiness’s predilection for monoculture — growing vast fields of a single, profitable crop whose lack of biological diversity makes them catastrophically vulnerable to exotic diseases such as the new soybean rust.

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2 thoughts on “Biodiesel blooms in Asheville

  1. Osmund Tycho

    Big oil is not promoting bio-diesel for the same reason beef ranchers are not promoting eating more chicken. It’s counter productive to their business.
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