“Many of you have heard of slow food. Maybe even slow cities. Now I ask you to lend your ear to the slow fuel movement. ” -Rachel Burton of Piedmont Biofuels speaking at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference
In all our talk about “local” food and food miles, do we ever think about how many miles the fuel that powers the tractor travelled just to make it to the pump? Rachel Burton and Piedmont Biofuels do, and in her presentation at Southern SAWG she challenged us to consider fuel in our local “diet”. Piedmont Biofuels is taking a radical approach to community economics and sustainability and are attempting to get everything they need to make the biodiesel that fuels their vehicles within 100 miles of their plant in Pittsboro, NC. Their goal is not to sell as much fuel as possible. Energy conservation is their top priority. How many Exxon executives do you think ride their bikes to work?
I asked Rachel if I could publish her speech here on the blog, and she obliged.
I’m here to tell you about our small renewable fuel project in Chatham County. We are Piedmont Biofuels, from a little town in the woods of North Carolina. We make biodiesel. Maybe you know what that is. It’s a clean burning renewable fuel that is derived from fat or vegetable oil. How it is made is pretty similar to making soap- except leave out the water and throw in an alcohol. We use methanol but you can use ethanol. To get the reaction we need a catalyst which could be sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. At the end of a successful reaction we are left with biodiesel and glycerin.The last time I attended the southern sawg conference was in 2003 and we were just embarking into the world of biodiesel. Back then I was teaching at the local community college and making plans for a small market garden on my snow camp farm. I was commuting 45 minutes to Pittsboro to work which translates to a lot of homemade fuel and a lot of time collecting oil from McDonalds. Within a year of making fuel to feed my old dodge pickup, I reduced my commute down to 5 minutes and it was increasingly clear that we were thoroughly obsessed with biodiesel.Making your own fuel feels good. You become more aware of your need to go to town or not. One of the best things is feeling more free from the shackles of a greedy and violent, top-down energy infrastructure which we at Piedmont Biofuels find oppressive. The process of making biodiesel takes time and it can be kind of messy- like anticipating the first cotyledon leaves to sprout or waiting for home made sausage to cure- It can be slow. Many of you have heard of slow food. Maybe even Slow cities. Now I ask you to lend your ear to the slow fuel movement.After working at Perrywinkle farm for many a few years, I switched gears into biodiesel through my pursuits as an auto mechanic- looking for a sustainable means of transportation. Soon I met my partners in crime- Leif & Lyle. Lyle’s journey began with his passion for deep fried turkeys, and a desire for something to do with his left over cooking oil. And Leif’s journey into biodiesel began in college, with an inspirational tractor project. Somehow the three of us ended up together in Lyle’s backyard making biodiesel. And now, four years later, we’re still hard at. And a bunch of others have jumped in too. Sometimes it seems very accidental. Maybe you can call it “organic.” Let’s say we are still working on coming out of our shell.Small reactors made small batches of fuel. Which led to larger reactors which made larger batches, which has ultimately led to some really large tankage. Today we are just completing the construction on a million gallon per year facility, which is merely an outcropping of our journey.Our story is very much like that haircare advertisement from the seventies, where “they told two friends, and they told two friends, and they told two friends,” and suddenly we ended up providing biodiesel to a whole bunch of people.Some say we are the largest biodiesel coop in America, as we hover around 400 members. That means we are meeting the fuel needs of a few hundred families in the Central North Carolina. And we dump some biodiesel into fleets as well. We sell to Whole Foods. And to the North Carolina Zoo. And even to Willie Nelson. Many entities have turned to us to help them with their emissions, and with mandates of sustainability. We are happy to help, since we distribute fuel, and sell small scale biodiesel processors, and believe that it is entirely possible to dip your toe into a passing waste stream and fish out enough energy to meet your needs. Most of our fuel goes straight into the individual fuel tanks of our coop members. In many ways that is all we are. We are believers in a micro nodal model of energy production that insists that energy be harnessed where it is used. We believe energy consumption needs to be chased down to the lowest point possible, and we would like to take it from there. We have decided to include FUEL in our 100 mile diet.Around Piedmont Biofuels you will find a bunch of bicycle enthusiasts. Why on earth would you drive around on valuable biodiesel when you could walk or ride a bike? We are a bunch of people who don’t drive all that much. We understand that biodiesel doesn’t scale very well, and we have no delusions that in the future everybody will simply be running around on vehicles powered by soybeans. Once we have used up all of our waste fats, oils, and greases, we can start growing some oilseed crops, and once we’ve planted every arable inch in oilseed crops we are out of tricks.And if that time comes, we will not even have begun to power an unquenchable economy like the United States. Some in biofuels are already to plant oil palm trees all in a row in the developing world to ship supertankers of oil to the U.S. market, to which we ask you to be very afraid.Some have grandiose plans of producing biofuels from algae with yields of 10,000 gallons per acre. We’ve even put out the challenge to few universities in the southeast to produce a gallon of algae oil. We even placed some money on the table - But the best results we have seen have come from Arlo and the bottom of Gaston Lake. We cannot possibly grow enough BTUs to fuel our current consumption. The biota will not give it to us.We are not cornucopians with a techno fix.We are simply proponents of helping people meet their own fuel needs. As we have toiled to meet our fuel needs, we have incidentally found ourselves meeting the fuel needs of others. We are not wanting to be the next Rockefellers of fuel. Of course we believe that the carbon age is rapidly coming to an end. For us, peak oil, and climate change, and resource wars are standard baseline thinking. But when we reflect on those influences which have the most deadly effect on this planet, we find ourselves suspicious of corporate structure, and shareholder value, and greed. We are opposed to business as usual. And we want to turn over the apple cart that is our atrocious energy paradigm. When it comes to our behavior in the United States, we find ourselves calling for an Energy Regime Change. Today Piedmont Biofuels is a conglomerate of people and ideas.We have a design-build group that ships “farm scale” biodiesel processors which help people make their own fuel. And we have an education and outreach group that runs all over the Southeast in an effort to demonstrate biodiesel, and subsequently demonstrate a different way of relating to energy and fuel consumption. We helped start and run a Biofuels program alongside the Sustainable Farming program at Central Carolina Community College. At that time there was a dozen people sitting around pondering how to make fuel in a mason jar. Within a year the biofuels program at the college was born and now I am proud to say that we have a full time coordinator and will be rolling out a 2-year degree program for the entire North Carolina Community College system. And there we periodically offer workshops and week-long courses on biofuels—often partnering with others.At the end of the week, you will find us ground down to the nub, begging for sleep, spent, and wishing that changing the world could be accomplished between nine and five.On the farm, we run an extensive home brewing operation, where members avail themselves of our facility to make their own fuel. Although it has been cobbled together by pieces and parts, many of which we found in the woods, it amounts to an overall impressive effort, complete with methanol recovery, glycerin composting, soap production, and a wetland to treat our waste water.We offer free tours of this facility every Sunday afternoon at 1:00, and we entertain thousands of visitors each year. That means we are in the agir-tourism business, where we sell t-shirts, and books, and assorted tchotche. When you tour a Piedmont Biofuels project you will incidentally encounter actual examples of “green building” projects. We built the shed for biodiesel storage out of cob because we needed some thermal mass to keep our precious fuel warm. We built one of our off-grid pumping locations out of straw bale. And we built our grease-warming zone out of recycled sliding glass doors with Hebel block and blue jean insulation. We even use a waste oil burner powered by used veggie oil to heat our greenhouse in winter.Many of our members have significant investments in photovoltaics. We use solar thermal systems for process heat and to heat fuel in storage, and we use water which has been warmed by the sun to heat buildings and provide hot showers. We’ve successfully deployed day lighting to reduce electricity consumption and we have installed a plant-wall bio filter in our shared kitchen to act as an indoor air cleaning device. These are the types of things people see when they come visit. They come to find out about the fuel, and end up brushing up against a wide variety of strategies, that are deployed in the real world, that demonstrate a different relationship to energy. I suppose all we really want is a different way of being. We want to walk more softly.Really, we never could have planned this if we had tried. We have a thriving consulting business that we operate on a sliding scale. You can come for a free tour, you can get an extra hour with the purchase of a membership—that’s fifty dollars per year—or if you are intent on making a gazillion dollars in the nascent biodiesel business, you can get the content of our brains for an exorbitant hourly rate.Along the way, a sustainable farm has grown up in our amidst. We’re delighted to have farmer Doug Jones join our project now named Piedmont Bio-farm with more efforts toward growing a bounty of vegetables.We currently ship truckloads of produce to Chatham Marketplace, our local coop grocery store, and to farmer’s market stalls in our area. Since we have some arable land on our industrial site, we are about to triple the size of our agricultural endeavors.And we will use biodiesel to do so- with two tractors and a number of trucks running on 100% biodiesel, ranging in ages from1969 to 2004, from a Kubota to Ford to Waukesha. We use them for all sorts of activities from breaking new ground to hauling folks in the Pittsboro Christmas parade.Yet the linkage between local FOOD production and local FUEL production are inescapable, and we are simply interested in living in a community that can feed and fuel itself. Many of us here think in terms of food miles and how far our food travels…how many gallons of petroleum were burned to deliver this lettuce to your table. But in biofuels we also look at FUEL miles. The industry standard for biodiesel’s energy balance is 3 BTUS produced for each ONE consumed. When you examine our farm’s biodiesel efforts we rank at almost 8:1. This is because our utilization of waste products and renewable energy resources.One of research ventures on our farm is some oilseed crop trials,- canola, sunflower, and mustard seed varieties- which provide a demonstrative look at how energy crops could be grown, and we remain exceedingly interested in learning how many acres of what could be grown in our biosphere to power a small sustainable farm. Right now livestock is not really a part of our agricultural pursuits but some folks are doing significant research on how the main byproduct of biodiesel, glycerin, could successfully enhance the nutritional value of chicken and cattle feed.Within our coop we operate a fuel distribution business that makes B100 biodiesel available to eight locations in our area. We provide infrastructure to members who want pumps and tanks on their farms or businesses. And we run a little tank truck around the area in an effort to keep everybody in fuel. Normally when you hear about biodiesel it is measured in blends. B2 means two percent biodiesel and 98 percent petroleum. B20 means 20% bio. Meanwhile, we are all running around on B100, in an effort to be free of the oppressive petroleum grid.Biodiesel makes for strange bedfellows. Some people come to biodiesel in the name of air quality. Wherever you see air quality on the decline, you will find biodiesel consumption on the rise. Some people come to biodiesel because it is made in America and helps the farm economy. Some come because they view it as a way to hide from the government. Others come because there is no war required to get the stuff. That means you will find right winged survivalists sitting next to peacenik hippie chicks all under the same biodiesel tent. Some want to pay for their fuel with silver, others want to pay with a massage. We tend to barter for U.S. dollars in order to keep our lives simple. As an enterprise, Piedmont Biofuels has grown at an amazing rate. It seems we are not alone in our thinking. Apart from our design-build business, and our education and outreach, and our home brewing operation with the tourism piece, and our consulting gigs and our distribution business, we now have our Industrial operation online.In the world of biodiesel, it’s small. We intend to push out one million gallons per year. We will collect our feedstocks from within one hundred miles of our small southern town, and we will distribute the fuel back into that same circle. And although we are small, it does give us a seat at the commercial operator’s table where we push our agenda of sustainability, cooperative production, localization, and a different way of being.Today, many biodiesel interests are dominated by the huge agricultural corporations. For us, switching our dependency from Exxon to Archer Daniels Midland is a small step. Recall - that we prefer to chase our fuel consumption habits down to a more manageable size, and then meet them ourselves. We never set out to build a commercial facility, in fact we freely offered the opportunity to other groups along the way. Had not Lyle stumbled upon an abandoned industrial park on the edge of town, and had Leif and I not fallen in love with it, I’m not sure we would be members of the commercial producer community at this point. I’m not sure what exactly set the hook, although quite possibly it was that the mezzanine was already painted in our colors.Having a toe in commercial production does provide us with a pulpit from which we can speak to local governments. At Piedmont Biofuels we workdirectly with our North Carolina Department of Agriculture and their motor fuels laboratory. See in North Carolina, we’re lucky to an ag department that provides free soil testing. Now this same department is making an investment in its biofuels future- by taking a leadership role in providing biodiesel fuel testing for the State.Imagine Leif and Lyle and myself, standing around a fifty five gallon drum with a washing machine agitator that we fished out of the woods, spinning a batch of fuel around and around, and Lyle says to Leif, “You know this will lead to some influence over state legislators.” To which Leif replied, “Of course it will. Hand me that bottle of lye, will you?”And while that conversation never happened, we have expended a good quantity of homemade fuel driving up and down the road to Raleigh to attempt to influence energy policy in our state. Somehow we readily became recognizable spokespeople in the grassroots biodiesel scene in this country- and we are now finding ourselves delivering our message to larger and larger audiences, and to more distant venues all the time. That means we end up burning more hydrocarbons to tell our story. Since we started this project, our local energy scene has improved a little, but our national energy situation hasn’t changed much.Today America is consuming like mad, conserving very little, and attempting to kill its way into its share of declining oil reserves. And to protect our gluttonous way of life we have decided it would be best if we could be allowed to torture people.Instead of striving for energy independence at home, we find ourselves further limiting the rights of our citizens in the name of security.The desire to opt out of all of that is what powers Piedmont Biofuels. We just want to be free. Free to breathe air that doesn’t make us sick. Free to drive to town without tithing to OPEC. Free to grow our own food to power our families. Free to celebrate fecundity. And free to tell people about our quest for a different way of being.