The last time Lyle Estill filled up his car's tank at a regular gas station was more than two years ago. He, along with the other members of Pittsboro's Piedmont Biofuels, runs his car on biodiesel, a once-upon-a-time backyard brew and now in-demand sustainable fuel source. Nowadays, Estill, as well as Rachel Burton and Leif Forer, are the brains behind the "Moncure to Mebane" grassroots biodiesel trail that will open its fourth and fifth locations in Durham and Carrboro in the next week to complete what Estill dubs "the most exciting renewable energy project on the eastern seaboard."
The additional tanks in Durham and Carrboro will supplement the existing locations where Piedmont Biofuels co-op members can fill up their tanks environmentally guilt-free with 100 percent biodiesel, B100, in Moncure, Mebane and Pittsboro at a price of $3.50 per gallon. In defense of what member Forer called the bargain of biofuel, he says, "The fact is, the biodiesel is renewable. We don't have to pay for asthma inhalers. No one loses their lives getting the stuff. When we fill up at the gas station we're not paying the costs associated with petroleum."
Biodiesel comes from a variety of sources, most commonly vegetable oil, soybean oil or animal fat, and when mixed with methanol and a catalyst, potassium hydroxide, produces a fuel emitting reduced or eliminated levels of greenhouse gases such as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
In the Triangle, Estill points out that the air is currently in "non-attainment" status, according to the EPA. Simply put, that means the air is too polluted to receive federal funding for growth or transportation initiatives, and biodiesel is one way out of the bind for individuals and the state alike.
The N.C. Department of Transportation is one of the biggest consumers of biodiesel in the state, and there are sites including in Durham, Cary and Garner where B20 fuel that is 20 percent biodiesel is already sold.
This past school year, Chatham County schools ran their buses on B20 through a grant from the Triangle J Council of Governments. The buses ran with power and fuel mileage comparable to traditional diesel, said the schools' transportation director, Roy Kidd, though the use of B20 did result in some clogged fuel filters.
And Piedmont Biofuels got a call from the tour managers for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan last week, and the group pumped 450 galllons of biodiesel into the buses of the touring duo when they played Sunday in Zebulon.
Any diesel engine can run on biodiesel, and while the majority of the diesel use in the country is commercial, i.e. boats, trucks, buses, and generators, there are plenty of individuals with diesel engines who want to make the move to biodiesel, according to Estill. "We've got chronic demand. We've been out of fuel since we started."
Each month Piedmont Biofuels, working out of an abandoned metal processing plant in Pittsboro at the end of dusty Lorax Lane, distributes about 4,000 gallons of biodiesel to its fewer than 100 co-op members. Mebane's Carolina Biodiesel, the only other B100 biodiesel game in the Triangle, distributes about 1,000 gallons a month.
The Triangle Clean Cities Coalition and N.C. Energy office helped fund the Moncure to Mebane trail with a grant of $8,500. The co-op's goal is to make 1 million gallons in the following year, and in a state where there are currently no producers of commercial biofuel, it's a business niche in need of filling.
But it's a task made more difficult since their biodiesel processing plant is still a work in progress. The biodiesel that Piedmont Biodiesels currently distributes in the Triangle is imported from Charlotte, where it is imported from out of state--from Iowa, Florida or elsewhere--then placed into the co-op's tankers for sale to the public. Eventually, the group's goal is to get the needed oil from within a 100-mile radius in order to be sold and burned within a 100-mile radius, avoiding importation of the feedstocks or exportation of the biodiesel, making for complete sustainability. "When you look for biodiesel, the road's gonna lead to us," Estill says.
Piedmont Biofuels plans to "roll the first drop" of biodiesel at the Pittsboro plant within the next 12 months, although it depends on a number of factors.
Add to that the fact that the co-op receives no federal funding, which means their budget depends on money from co-op memberships, workshops at Central Carolina Community College where Burton and Estill teach a class on biofuel, sales of biofuel, and building reactors. They are currently working with the Asheboro Zoo to create a biodiesel reactor that would create fuel from their food court's used vegetable oil to run the visitor trams.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Durham location, Bull City Biodiesel, is Friday at the intersection of Ellis Road and Pettigrew Street. And in Carrboro, in a unique joint venture, the co-op is partnering with Public Works of Carrboro to open Tuesday, June 21.
Across from the Piedmont Biofuels processing plant is a license plate that says "ANTIOPEC," and several young banana trees growing in a small dirt plot.
"This is for those people who don't believe in global warming," Estill says. When they're ready, Estill will use the fruit's rich potassium in the fuel-making process. Meanwhile, they seem to serve as a symbol of their mission, like imported seussian truffula trees.
Whether doing it in the name of environmental sustainability, a made-in-the-USA label, control over community resources or political will, the users of biodiesel are climbing in numbers, seeping into the mainstream of fuel consumption. As gas prices climb, Estill predicts the Moncure to Mebane biofuel trail can't help but be noticed.
"It's not one little thing in Pittsboro," he says, "it's all over the Triangle."
To join the Piedmont Biofuels co-op, go to www.biofuels.coop. There's an annual fee of $50.