The TH Interview: Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels, Part 2 of 3

Lyle Estill is co-founder, along with Leif Forer, Rachel Burton and a band of fellow grease enthusiasts, of Piedmont Biofuels (PB), a group that we reported on here. PB is essentially a biodiesel co-op that has gone from backyard 'brewing', to running a small 300-gallon-a-week set up, to operating a 4-million-gallons-per-year capacity industrial biodiesel plant, all in the space of a few years. On the side, the group operates a fledgling local, organic farm, runs educational programs, assists with biofuel research, and manufactures kits for home fuel production. Lyle also writes a popular and entertaining energy blog, and has even authored a book entitled Biodiesel Power: The Passion, the People and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel. In the first part of this three part interview, Lyle gave us a tour of the co-op's new industrial biodiesel facillity, and showed us how to make fuel from fat. We also learned how the group plans to create sustainable electricity for the local grid using waste veggie oil. In part two we'll learn more about the stringent testing methods used to ensure fuel quality, and about the other sustainable businesses integrating with the co-op. In part three we'll be visiting the farm where it all began, and where do-it-yourself brewing still continues today. We'll also hear a little more about Lyle's vision of biofuels in a sustainable future.

The tour continues with a look at the lab, which Lyle claims is one of the most well-equipped biodiesel labs on the Eastern seaboard. The lab is run by co-founder Rachel Forer, a "fuel-quality nut job" apparently, and is used for joint research projects with universities, and bodies like the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, to try out new test methods, and push for better fuel quality. It is also the venue for the sometimes painful and long-winded process of testing and retesting the co-op's fuel batches, something that Lyle sees as vital:

"We produce a certificate of analysis with every load, so we let the customer know exactly what was in it. That's a necessary thing for the industry. A lot of biodiesel ships off spec, and that's a problem. Some operations are more in it for the money, and motivations aren't the same across the industry."

In the front yard, we are whisked past a bike rack ("Why would you waste your precious fuel going to lunch?!") to be shown a small strawbale unit housing a biodiesel tank - part of the B100 Community Trail — a network of self-service fuelling facilities for co-op members. The co-op has been fighting with the authorities to get the structure legal:

"I put a 500 gallons tank of B100 inside a strawbale structure, and the authorities said 'that's illegal'. So I said, 'show me the building code references that say I can't do this' which, of course, they couldn't. A year and a half later they made me dry-wall the damn thing, but it's now permitted."

The co-op also sells tanks and off-grid pumping units to the public, so that they can have their own fuelling facilities in their backyard.

The site at industrial has also become a fertile space for 'incubating' and developing other green businesses. The site is home to the Abundance Foundation, a fund raising organization for local sustainability projects including PB, and the Green Bean Counter, a book keeper specializing in the needs of green businesses and non-profits. One of the facility's sheds is now a base for ECO (Eastern Carolina Organics), an organic food wholesaler. A vermiculture operation takes food and fine paper waste, and is intending to expand to also take waste from nearby businesses.

A local hydroponic lettuce grower has also moved his operations to the site, after the herbicide from ditch spraying got sucked up into his previous greenhouse — he's now supplying ECO, and is doubling his operations. He is also experimenting with ways to make food growing more efficient, as Lyle explains:

"He's heating the thing with propane, and then punching the CO2 from the heater back into the greenhouse to feed the plants. This is fairly unique, because he's at 90% efficiency. We've had multiple engineers come in here and say it can't be done, and it's really good Screech doesn't realize that. He's too busy growing lettuce to listen to what they are saying up at NC State!"

Meanwhile, PB are also getting in on the farming game. They have been running a small farm operation at the original co-op site, but their aim is to now step this up a level or two, further developing the sites industrial ecology approach, where one business fits into a niche created by another:

"The farm will basically be plugging the gaps of ECO. So they can tell us what they are missing this year, garlic for example, and we'll grow it and sell it to ECO who are on our doorstep. And these guys run on our B100, so it all fits in together. The trick is to keep everyone's interests aligned."

Lyle is slightly taken aback when we suggest they are a great example of industrial ecology. He argues that really, they are just working it out from moment to moment. This leads to a long discussion, that eventually becomes a blog entry, and Lyle eventually concedes that there are some very interesting parrallels with the natural world:

Everything we do fits nicely into this paradigm: Screech's hydroponics lettuce, ECO's organic vegetables, Industrial's boutique fuel, Blast's high speed Internet, David and Willy's custom fuelmaking systems, Bruce's hydro electric turbine-it appears everything we touch is carved out of a specialized niche.

Moving inside, we take a look at the staff kitchen — a beautiful day-lit space that used to be a machine shop. It was designed by Alicia Ravetto, a local architect specializing in green building, and features a living biowall (pictured at the top of the page) - a plant-based air cooling and purifying system. Lyle explains that fresh-air and sunlight were of central importance when they designed the refurbishment of the site.

Stay tuned for part three tomorrow, in which we visit the farm where it all began, and learn some more about how Lyle sees biofuels developing in the future.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Biodiesel | North Carolina | TH Interview

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