The advent of alternative fuels in Western North Carolina may be the nudge our area needs to improve air quality. A Blue Ridge Biofuels pump recently installed at Biltmore BP on Hendersonville Road, now dispensing a 20 percent biodiesel blend, is the first of several new fuel options springing up in our area that don’t rely on foreign oil.
A U.S. Department of Energy grant recently awarded Blue Ridge Biofuels, the Triangle J Council of Governments and other regional alternative-fuel organizations $590,000 to install biofuel infrastructure in stations across the Southeast. In Buncombe County, the grant will fund five new B20 biodiesel pumps (including the one at Biltmore BP) and three E85 ethanol pumps by 2008.
“Blue Ridge Biofuels is really excited to be on the forefront of making alternative fuels more widely available in our region,” says company director Brian Winslett. “We’d really like to help make nonfossil fuels available in the area, and we hope this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Ethanol and biodiesel are cleaner-burning, renewable fuels that can be produced using locally grown agricultural products. On the whole, biodiesel-powered vehicles reduce overall emissions by 70 percent compared with conventional diesel engines, according to the Blue Ridge Biofuels Web site. The locally owned business uses waste veggie oil from local restaurants to produce its product.
Yet shifting to vegetable-based fuels on a large scale can have unintended consequences. As the cost of tortillas skyrocketed in Mexico in recent weeks, making a dietary staple unaffordable for many of that country’s poorest citizens, Mexico’s Economy Minister Eduardo Sojo linked the price surge to a reduced supply of cheap, imported U.S. corn as more of it is diverted for ethanol production.
“I really feel that soy-based biodiesel and corn-based ethanol are really just the gateway feedstocks to biofuels,” says Winslett. As the market for biofuels grows, he explains, it can open the doors to a wide variety of feedstock options, including algae and starchy crops that aren’t food staples. When it comes to finding alternatives to foreign-oil dependency, “Biofuels are not the sole answer—they’re only part of the solution,” Winslett maintains.
What a gas
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nationally recognized authority on clean energy, recently named the Honda Civic GX—which runs on compressed natural gas—the “greenest” car of 2007. In Asheville, CNG is about to become more widely available than ever before. TransEco Energy, an Asheville-based clean-energy corporation, recently opened a 27,000-square-foot facility near the airport where conventional vehicles can be converted to run on the methane-based fuel. “We are able to convert gasoline, diesel and just about any kind of car,” says company Vice President Miles George. Cars can be converted to run entirely on CNG, or tweaked to be able switch back and forth between CNG and another type of fuel.
By March 1, TransEco plans to open a new CNG filling station about a quarter-mile from their new facility. “We’ll have anywhere from three to five more [local] stations by the end of 2007,” says George, “and up to 15 new stations over the next three to five years,” most of them clustered in Buncombe County. The long-term vision reaches even farther: all the way from New York to Florida. The company, adds George, is forging partnerships with fuel-station owners along the corridor to site new CNG pumps.
The low cost of the fuel is another incentive: Methane-based CNG currently sells for about $1.50 per gas-gallon equivalent. “We may be able to sell it cheaper than that once we get enough people using it,” notes George. And compared with gasoline-powered vehicles, CNG cars emit 99 percent less benzene, 35 to 60 percent less nitrogen oxides, 87 percent less hydrocarbons and no lead whatsoever, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But CNG is not a magic bullet either. To begin with, it’s still a fossil fuel. And although burning it produces up to 25 percent less carbon dioxide—the greenhouse gas associated with climate change—than gas-powered vehicles do, biodiesel reduces CO2 emissions by 78 percent or more, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Clean Vehicles Coalition is working to bring a diversity of alternative-fuel vehicles to Western North Carolina to help address diminishing air quality and climate change. To get involved, contact Bill Eaker at Bill@landofsky.org.