French fries in your tank | Green Living Guide | Indy Week

Special Issues » Green Living Guide

French fries in your tank


Click for larger image • The Green Oil Campus in Durham has the only card-swipe biofuel pump in the state. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Before long, a fleet of bicyclists may crisscross Durham hauling used restaurant grease to be recycled into biodiesel fuel. "Biking for biodiesel" is what Mark Dreyfors, co-founder of Durham's new Green Oil Campus, dubs this project, one of many innovative ideas in his quiver.

The waste oil would be refined at Carolina Biodiesel, a small sustainable biofuel production facility in northeast Durham. Comprised of several thousand square feet of warehouses, office space and fuel tanks, the Green Oil Campus is being carved out of an old Exxon Mobil industrial site from the 1920s, located off Angier Avenue.

"It's ironic," reflects Dreyfors, "we are trying to build a new, green economic model in a site that was the base of the destructive petroleum economy."

While perfect for biofuels, the campus is fast becoming an incubator for other green businesses and organizations. It shares space with Orange Recycling, the largest recycling business in the Triangle, and Greenway Transit, a green transportation company that is rapidly growing a fleet of rental and charter ethanol and biodiesel taxis, vans and buses.

The campus is a project of The Forest Foundation, a nonprofit that Dreyfors and partner Mary Katherine Williams began more than a decade ago to promotes sustainable livelihoods. The nonprofit shares office space on the site, which also contains warehouse space for Forests of the World, the couple's fair trade wholesaler, their first foray into green entrepreneurship.

New visitors' first impression of the site—the mild odor of stale French fries wafting over an expanse of cement with a looming biodiesel pump—belies the utopian vision behind Dreyfors' green economic model. But he points out that there's a hidden beauty in the closed loops of industrial processes that take place onsite. For example, the restaurant grease causing the smell is being cleaned and processed for fuel that will have low carbon emissions. Next to a cement retaining wall, there is a corner of the building that could house a greenhouse heated by thermal-mass.

The philosophy on the campus could be described as "green synergy." Dreyfors envisioned a plan in which biodiesel revenue would, for example, fund educational projects on raised bed gardens, with proceeds from workshops used to fund the next project. There have been some holdups, though.

"The original purpose of the biofuels was to fund the other projects and organizations here at the campus, but we have not been able to focus on the other projects as much because we're trying to get the biofuels really established," says Dreyfors.

Carolina Biodiesel has had no problem selling all of its fuel at current production levels. In spite of the dropping cost of regular diesel, the company sold 110,000 gallons last year. The real limitation is the lack of capital to increase production and improve efficiency.

"We've had quite a few financiers come through, but they want to invest five to ten million dollars, minimum—much more than we need. And they just don't really understand this new green, community-based model we are trying to create," says Dreyfors.

Money has been tight, but projects at the Green Oil Campus move forward. YIKES! (Youth Involved in Keeping Earth Sustainable) rents warehouse space and has helped create an "EcoLounge"—a large room with a stage, projection space and workbenches for green educational and entrepreneurial workshops. One EcoLounge wall is painted floor to ceiling with an ecological mural; a corner is filled with rain barrels, painted by local youth, which YIKES! sells to raise funds.

Sky Garden, the main YIKES! project this spring in partnership with Public Allies organizers, will involve youth from the surrounding community in container gardening to green the large flat roof of the EcoLounge. A second project, Recyclique, will train youth in "upcycling" or crafting techniques to turn waste materials into artsy goods that are branded as sustainable products.

The vision for the campus, though, is grander than just a site for green businesses and organizations. Dreyfors and a band of volunteers are working toward a day when the campus is a regional hub for green-collar job training and an incubation center for green entrepreneurialism that could help transform Northeast Central Durham.

"This site is perfect," says Dreyfors. "It is located in a Hope VI economic redevelopment area, so the area needs jobs and opportunities. It's also a Brownfields site, so the City is committed to greening it, and we already have a good group of established green businesses and organizations."

The green jobs program would focus on training local Durham youth and adults in skills like energy auditing and weatherization. Trainees could earn income going into local neighborhoods and helping residents cut their energy bills. The program would also offer mentoring to support young green entrepreneurs, expanding on the efforts of YIKES.

The team is networking with administrators at local educational institutions like Durham Tech, so the Green Oil Campus could be part of an accredited program. The plan is to offer courses to both fee-paying students and to low-income people, with the former offsetting costs for the latter.

The Green Oil Campus is beginning to gain recognition. In late fall, Dreyfors and Williams received the Sustainability Champions award by Sustain N.C. for their leadership.

What is in short supply is the money. However, the Obama administration's commitment to invest in a green-collar economy offers hope that a new era has arrived.

Biking for biofuels may sound silly to some, but to these entrepreneurs, creating local green-collar jobs could be a magic bullet for many of the ills that plague us. If this strange baby makes it out of the incubator, a new green-collar economy would confront three of the transcendent challenges of our time: dependence on foreign oil, global climate change and a faltering economy.

More power to them.

Disclosure: Sandy Smith-Nonini, project manager for the Indy's Green Living Guide, volunteers with YIKES!

Add a comment