Locally produced biodiesel fuels economic growth in rural N.C.

In 2004, Lyle Estill founded a home brewing cooperative in North Carolina. But it wasn’t beer he was brewing. Instead, by using as feedstock waste cooking oil sourced from area restaurants, Estill and his neighbors were brewing biodiesel.

At the end of the cooperative brewing sessions held at Estill’s home in Chatham County, people would return home with tanks full of biodiesel, completing the transformation of what had once been waste into an efficient fuel capable of powering cars and trucks down the road.

In 2006, two years after the first cooperative home brewing sessions, Estill founded a company called Piedmont Biofuels. For the past seven years, the growing company has been sourcing, producing, and distributing local, made-in-North-Carolina biofuels.

Much of the fuel Piedmont produces directly offsets petroleum-based fuel that has higher greenhouse gas emissions, and is often sourced from overseas oil. So in addition to improving the Tar Heel State’s environment, Piedmont’s fuel also helps improve North Carolina’s economy.

Compared to its early days, Piedmont produces biofuel on a much larger scale in the company’s “eco-industrial park.” At the park, large refinery towers dot the landscape, which also houses a lab, storage tanks, and productive gardens growing vegetables like peppers and tomatoes. Shading the crops to prevent them from wilting in the hot Carolina sun is a large, overhead solar array, which also generates enough electricity to power about half the facility’s total demand.

Piedmont_Biofuels

About 400 families are members of Piedmont’s business co-op. They pay $50 annual membership dues, plus the market-based cost of the biofuel. Customers can purchase biofuel from seven stations located across the state. When Piedmont’s supply exceeds its demand, it sells the surplus to larger oil companies.

Piedmont Biofuels has grown since its founding, and it now counts seven employees. However, the company is careful not to grow too quickly, because staying small and remaining a lean operation helps the business stay profitable — and for three consecutive years, Piedmont has been in the black.

Still, there are challenges to staying profitable. One major change since Piedmont was founded is the increased competition for waste cooking oil. In 2006, waste grease was relatively easy to come by, with restaurants eager to get it off of their hands. Recently, however, competition has cropped up.

“The grease business is very competitive,” Estill said.

By maintaining its co-op membership system and nurturing its close community ties, Piedmont established an exchange with 250 local restaurants. In return for waste cooking oil, Piedmont gives its members gift cards to these local eateries, mostly mom-and-pop restaurants that benefit from the boost in business. Piedmont, in turn, avoids some of the mounting expenses faced by competitors who must manage the steadily increasing price of waste cooking oil.

Beyond providing economic benefits to the region, Piedmont is a statewide leader in North Carolina’s growing sustainability movement. Piedmont was one of the first U.S. companies certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials while also producing a high-quality, BQ9000-certified product — the highest certification biofuels can receive.

As Piedmont looks toward the future, it wants to continue to remain true to its community-based model – while also growing in a profitable, sustainable manner.

— Environmental Entrepreneurs

Photo: Piedmont Biofuels founder Lyle Estill leads a tour group around the company’s “eco-industrial park,” describing the biodiesel refinery towers, storage tanks, and gardens behind him.

Photo credit: Lauren Kubiak