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