Our Story

This is what we used to say:

The industrial plantFrom the beginning Piedmont Biofuels has focused on small scale biodiesel production. Our expertise lies in small reactor design for making fuel out of waste vegetable oil. That said, we have made fuel out of everything from peanut oil to canola oil to sausage waste to poultry fat. We have yet to make fuel from a dead squirrel, but we are working on it.

“Scaling up” is a natural inclination of anyone making fuel in the back yard. Once you break the blender barrier, you immediately want to get bigger. If you get a good biodiesel reaction on ten gallons, why not go for one hundred? If you can do a 100 gallon batch, why not 1000?

Perhaps we have Henry Ford to thank for this impulse. The desire to scale up is almost a universal truth that girl Mark has dubbed “the lure of the producer”.

We have resisted the urge from the beginning. We have been girded in part by Jeremy Rifkin’s Hydrogen Economy, which lays out a remarkable vision of micro-nodal energy production.

We often preach about the virtues of the backyard operation. We have spawned lots of them. And we have spawned small producer co-ops. We have long suggested that homemade biodiesel holds the promise of upending the over arching, top-down, energy infrastructure that currently holds most of us in its grasp.

After years of successfully resisting the urge to go into commercial biodiesel production, we have finally succumbed, and have incorporated Piedmont Biofuels Industrial, LLC.

Our decision to go commercial was informed in part by our discovery of an abandoned chemical plant on the edge of Pittsboro.

Commercial biodiesel typically boasts about a dollar per gallon relationship between capital costs, and gallons produced.

That is, if you wish to open a million gallon per year facility, have a million dollars handy.

And while this may be the traditional wisdom, we have seen repeated examples of biodiesel plants that break this mold, and come on line for .43 a gallon, or claims of .25. These operations are appearing in abandoned chemical plants that are being recycled into commercial biodiesel production.

As avid recyclers, and dedicated scrounges, we could not resist taking a run at this project.

The industrial park contains four buildings, of which we only require one for biodiesel. We plan to recycle it into a million gallon per year plant.

the charette

We wanted to fill up the other buildings with like minded people, and have subsequently staged a charette, and have entered into dozens of conversations about sustainable enterprises which may wish to join us in this new industrial park. Most of this has been covered in Energy Blog.

Here is what we say now:

It was a cold January day in 2005 when I put a board on a piece of metal frame and pulled up a chair at my new workspace in the abandoned control room. The place was creepy. It creaked and groaned with the ghosts of a failed alloy plant.

Forget everything we said about capital costs and their relationship to production. We were one year late and way over budget. We blew all of our money, refinanced twice, got a big grant from the State Energy Office, and are lucky that we are still standing.

Since we are stubborn do-it-yourselfers, we contracted the entire project ourselves. We hired welders and fitters and riggers and plumbers. We assembled a 5 person crew, headed up by Bruce, and we pulled in sub contractors from all over the area.

We bought some engineering, changed our design seventeen times, sometimes on the fly, endured countless inspections, and got one of North Carolina’s first commercial facilities off the ground.

Nowadays we give tours to the public.

People come from all over the place to look at our plant. The bath we took getting opened is being offset by an active consulting business, in which prospective commercial biodiesel producers come to learn about some of the tuition we paid over the past two years.

We are happily kicking out big batches of fuel. Each reaction is 2,000 gallons, and we tend to batch the reactions up so that we are routinely moving four thousand gallons of fuel out of our wash-dry facility, into our fuel terminal, and off to market.

While we have been focused on getting our plant open, a bunch of other businesses have jumped over the fence to join us. Our accidental experiment in industrial-ecology is wide open and showing immense promise.

We are the home to Eco Organics, a farm coop which is remaking our food shed. They run on B100. Some of their growers do too.

We have become the home of Screech Owl Greenhouse. He runs a sixty foot hydroponics greenhouse on the project. He was a thirty foot operation at first. Until Eco latched onto his wares. They take everything he can grow, and he has just doubled capacity to keep up.

Vermiculture has come to town. We run a worm bed which consumes all of the project’s fine paper waste, and is powered by ECO food waste. It is scheduled to spin off into its own business, taking on the food waste of Chatham Marketplace, and entering the worm castings market.

Piedmont Biofarms has moved in. They run the farm operation at our Coop facility, and are adding production at Industrial.

Green Bean Counter Business Services has jumped in. She’s a bookkeeper/accountant who is focusing on the renewable energy tax credit niche.

The Abundance Foundation has set up shop with us.

HOMs has staked out a piece of our mezzanine. They make natural bug repellant out of wild tomato extract and biodiesel. On one side of the street there is a crew trying to make fuel without emulsions. On the other there is a fellow who makes biodiesel based emulsions for a living.

Industrial has become a strange and wonderful place, with lots of activity, enterprise, and like minded individuals working in their own ways toward a different way of being.

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