Take one small town in North Carolina, add a heaping measure of cooking oil, season with a dash of granola mind-set, mix with old-fashioned elbow grease, and you have the recipe for one of the largest and most successful biofuel cooperatives in the country.
Pittsboro’s Piedmont Biofuels cooperative has humble backyard beginnings. Cofounder Lyle Estill, then a metal sculptor, would make some homebrewed biodiesel from leftover cooking oil and occasionally split a batch among friends. “It was a really good week if we all went home with a gallon or two,” says Estill, who used his share to fuel his tractor.
In less than a decade, the homegrown hobby has expanded into full-scale commercial production, with two plants, two sustainable farms, and a nonprofit arm that organizes community programs and workshops. The operation now employs nearly 70 full-time workers, and uses two 1,600-gallon fuel delivery trucks and one vacuum truck for oil collection.
Going door to door, Estill and cofounders Leif Forer and Rachel Burton slowly built an oil-collection network, convincing local restaurants and cafeterias to help “close the loop” and donate used cooking oil and animal fats to the cause. Their efforts paid off. The network includes a mix of independent and chain restaurants, as well as several corporate and university cafeterias—many of which use Piedmont’s biodiesel to run diesel equipment and vehicles.
In 2005, the outfit took on a new name—Piedmont Biofuels Industrial Inc.—and relocated to new headquarters, an abandoned chemical plant acquired with help from state grants and “recycled” into a biodiesel facility. The high- production plant caters to a growing fleet of biodiesel-fueled businesses—ranging from one outfit that produces natural bug repellents from biofuel to a company that makes a biofuel-based industrial cleaner for asphalt tools.
Today, the organization supplies hundreds of residents and businesses in North Carolina’s Research Triangle region with more than 1 million gallons of biodiesel annually—every drop of which is fully warranted, EPA-registered biodiesel that meets the national biodiesel quality specifications. The smaller of Piedmont’s two plants serves the co-op’s 550 members, producing up to 50,000 gallons of biofuel annually.
The co-op’s $50 annual fee gives a member the right to purchase fuel from any of Piedmont’s seven fuel stations on its “B100 Community Trail” or to have fuel delivered to their homes or businesses. Weekly fuel-making sessions also give members the opportunity to produce their own batches and learn about biofuel production.
Even with its growth, Piedmont, like so many biofuel cooperatives across the country, is always “just barely making it.” The organization credits its success to diversification and a creative mix of microfinancing, fundraising, and grants.
But the latest version of the Renewable Energy Standard just may give the operation the boost it needs. According to the new legislation, biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil will be classified as an “advanced” biofuel, potentially enabling the outfit to take advantage of government incentives for renewable fuels.
Estill says that’s good news for those in sustainable biodiesel production. “Our product is finally getting the recognition it deserves. And with that recognition, it should have more value.”
Piedmont Biofuels (www.biofuels.coop) is one of many biofuel cooperatives across the country that rely on local support. You can help a cooperative in your area by becoming a member or donating your restaurant’s leftover cooking oils or animal fats.
Search the Web for a cooperative in your area.