Just hours after arriving in Asheville, I found myself tagging along behind Woody Eaton as he invited me on an up-close tour of the Biodiesel Plant he manages, the same one that Actor Owen Wilson toured last week, Blue Ridge Biofuels, in Asheville, NC.
Woody is a co-founder of Blue Ridge Biofuels, who has produced nearly a million (904,000) gallons of fuel since October, 2011, or roughly 300,000 gallons per year. This fuel powers customers including Asheville drivers, 800-100K residential homes, a plethora of local businesses, and even the local Metropolitan Sewage District's fleet of 65 maintenance vehicles.
Used veggie oil is first gathered from 600 Asheville restaurants by trucks that are essentially "large vacuum cleaners," according to Woody. This "feedstock" then goes through biodiesel plant piping, which Blue Ridge dubs an "Erector Set for Grown-ups" that turns it into useable fuel for vehicles, homes, businesses, even producing a by-product (glycerin) for local soap-makers.
But woody and his team straddle that line of keeping the company at a manageable, community-based scale, or growing the company to greater production, which would mean more financial stability for the business, while affecting greater impact.
One of the biggest concerns around biofuels is the source of the feedstock, because if it is sourced from unused cooking oil, it drives deforestation by expanding global demand for vegetable oil. Blue ridge, like Yokayo biofuels in my home state, prides itself in sourcing only from used veggie oils from local restaurants, but one key driver limiting their growth is the availability of this ecologically-sound feedstock to grow their production.
Hence enters Woody's evolving scheme to partner with a North Georgia non-GMO Canola oil producer to distribute locally-grown and processed Non-GMO canola oil to the fast-growing Asheville restaurant scene.
Currently, more than 80% of Canola products used in the US are imported, according to an article in Southeast Farm Press. The potential partnership with Carolina winter canola farmers and an existing non-GMO Canola oil plant, reminds me of the concept of a closed loop industrial ecosystem rooted in natures principles of zero waste that Paul Hawken describes in The Ecology of Commerce, and that BALLE envisions by way of their work to create an interconnected network of locally-resilient economies that meet local needs by way of local resources. Woody is leveraging an interesting point of interception in the supply chain cycle of how we farm, fuel, and feed ourselves within one's own bio-region.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists' website, “Biodiesel made from waste materials or used cooking oil can cut global warming pollution by 80 to 90 percent relative to conventional diesel fuel.” So as I soak in the news of the demise of Yokayo biofuels in CA, I am heartened by the work of Woody and his team. I’m looking forward to doing my part by driving my new biodiesel car when I get home in August, and maybe using my new-found knowledge to inspire the next wave of biodiesel enthusiasm in my home of Sonoma County.