The TH Interview: Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels, Part 3 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 learned more about the stringent testing methods used to ensure fuel quality, and about the other sustainable businesses integrating with the co-op. In this, the third and final part, 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.

After wolfing down a cup of coffee (from a local fair-trade coffee roaster that does deliveries using B100 biodiesel), we are off again, driving over to the original co-op site in Lyle's convertible Mercedes which, of course, has been modified to run on biodiesel:

"This is a nightmare Frankenstein car. Diesel is so nasty, why would you want the top down? So I thought this would be a cool emissions statement — I have this car that I can take the top down, and say how clean it is. What I should have done was go for something that projects more mileage. All I've done with this is play into the whole cool car culture. Next time I'd go for something that can get to Florida and back on a tank. This is an 18mpg pig."

The fact that Lyle chooses his car according to the message it gives out is consistent with PB's entire approach — while the impact they are having on the ground is important, they are fully aware that their role as educators and awareness raisers is probably the biggest contribution they are making to the green movement:

"If we had a way to make a pie-chart, then education would be the biggest wedge. The amount of gallons we produce is demonstrative, precisely because it is so insignificant. All it does is show that there is a different way to meet your fuel needs, but even if we ran this plant at full-capacity for a year, we would only meet the diesel requirements of North Carolina for one day. What we need is one of these in every town. There are 500 towns in North Carolina, so let's build 500 of these things."
And it seems, for now at least, people are listening. Lyle is regularly invited to committees and panels on energy issues, and he does see an increased interest in energy and security related issues. While many of his blog entries show he's no huge fan of the current administration, he does acknowledge that the presidents' mention of alternative fuels in his State of the Union Address does lend a certain legitimacy to operations like Piedmont Biofuels:

"When Bush makes a mention of something like that, it makes a huge difference. You can watch it trickle down through the beurocracy. When beaurocrats realize they are not going to get fired for funding biodiesel, then stand by and watch the money roll in, temporarily at least."

But Lyle is very careful not to propose biodiesel, or any other green technology, as a magic bullet solution to our current problems. When asked if biofuels could match current energy demand, Lyle laughs:

"You can't do it. The biota cannot grow enough BTUs to power our present economies. There is just too much concentrated energy in fossil fuels that is not present in biofuels. There is a lot of potential to utilize waste fat in the economy, but once we've done that, you have to move into your virgin — i.e. fuel crops. And combining the two, waste fats and energy crops, there is still no way you could meet more than 50% of our current energy needs. Conservation is our only hope."

Our conversation is cut off as we pull into the original site of Piedmont Biofuels, known as the Biofarm. The contrast between here and Industrial could not be more striking — this is very much the do-it-yourself hippy vibe one would expect from a biodiesel co-op. There's a used chain-hoist that was found in the woods, an old trailer home that was donated by a member, and a playground that was salvaged from someone else's yard.

We pull up next to another strawbale-structure housing a fuel tank and solar pump. This is known, affectionately, as the Tami-tank, named after Lyle's wife — the idea being that while Tami was supportive of the co-op's biofuel adventures, there was no way she would get herself covered in grease to power her Jetta. The Tami-tank was devised as a means of making the co-op more accessible to the public, much to Tami's delight. "She can even fuel up in her stilettos now!" Lyle laughs.

The fuel-making operation here is much more hands-on, low key, and small scale. This does have it's advantages, however, as it means they are able to take lower-grade feedstocks and process them more carefully, something that is not currently possible at Industrial:

"Because we've only got a 150 gallon reactor here, and we've built a huge amount of storage, it's "crap welcome". We can filter it, and treat it appropriately. We don't pay for this feedstock. Down at industrial we pay a damn fortune for it. We are hoping to use waste oil at industrial too, but we can't treat it onsite because we don't have the infrastructure. We are in talks with a number of people about setting up a quality feedstock plant for waste oil though that could supply Industrial."

The main reactor is made from an old beer-brewing tank, and the lab here basically consists of a few test-tubes. The site currently churns out about 300 gallons a week, compared to the 2000 gallons that industrial can turn out in one morning. It is run by groups of volunteers who come in and produce their own fuel, paying the co-op for supplies and taxes:

"It's legal to make your own fuel, and use it. So we have crews of people who come in here and make their own. They pay for their supplies i.e. methanol, potassium and electricity. We can't sell that fuel, but if you participate in the manufacture, you are a member, and you pay for your supplies, then you are legal. You pay $1.50 , and about 50c of that goes off to state and federal authorities."

Outside the trailer is an area for composting glycerin, and a small water-purification wetland (water and glycerin are the two main waste streams in the process). The wetland is currently not operational, but they are hoping to revive it. Just as at industrial, solar power is used wherever possible to heat the feedstock, the finished fuel, and wash water, as temperature affects the viscosity of the fuel.

The farm side of the operation is still going here too, with 1000lbs of garlic growing in the field. The greenhouse is currently full of winter salad crops, destined for the local co-operative grocery and aided, again, by veggie oil, in theory at least:

"We have a vegetable oil heater in here, which has been a struggle for us. It's not currently working. But we have a sweet potato crop that has just come out, and we are planting broccoli, lettuce, mizzuna, carrots, onions and leeks too."

The farm side of operations has, so far, been subsidized by the fuel operations, but the co-op is hoping to turn this around:

"The farm has been limping along, but we are trying to get it operational and viable — we have three farmers working on this now."

As we leave the farm Lyle starts explaining yet another project the co-op has been hoping to get going, namely the renovation of existing micro-hydro power facilities in North Carolina, using Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) as a funding tool:

"The Renewable Energy Credit division is spluttering. We have one turbine operating on a dam, and another sitting right next to it that isn't working. We need to raise $20,000 to $30,000 to get it running, and we were hoping to sell renewable energy credits to get it going. But the offsets market is moving so fast, and is so mainstream, that we may have trouble keeping up with it."

Whether or not PBs venture into REC trading pays off or not seems almost irrelevant. You'd be hard pushed to find another grass-roots community group that is addressing so many different aspects of sustainability, all with a co-operative business model. Whether it's their fuel production, their education and outreach, their research work, or their role in developing an integrated, local, sustainable economy, Piedmont are certainly ahead of the game. It is this vision that could be so useful elsewhere in the United States, as Lyle laments on our (shared) ride back into town:

"If we could get this country to come to the party, there would be some hope. Because it is a country of ideas, a country of innovation, and a country of intellectual might — if we could just figure out a way to do it."

It seems that Piedmont Biofuels may well prove a shining example for those wishing to try

Check out parts one and two for details of Piedmont Biofuels' industrial facillity, and their integration of other sustainable businesses into their operations.

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

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