Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Piedmont Biofuels

Last weekend, we visited the Piedmont Biofuels coop near Pittsboro, NC. Piedmont is one of the oldest biofuels coops in the nation (I suspect it’s the oldest). As a venerable old coop full of creative people, they do a lot: vegetable oil conversions performed by certified mechanics, biodiesel production (on homebrew and industrial scales), they have several biodiesel pumps scattered through the Raleigh surroundings, internships for college students, grow and sell organic produce from their research farm, research uses for by-products of biodiesel production, make and sell soap from biodiesel glycerin, and on every Sunday at 1PM, they offer a free tour to anyone who stops by.

On a crystal clear Sunday morning, we stopped by around noon to fuel up before the tour formed up. Executive director Matt Rudolf and coop member Emily W. helped fill us up with 36 gallons of vegetable oil and 10 gallons of biodiesel. Emily then led us on a tour starting with a solar heated vegetable oil storage and settling room, a well-ventilated methanol storage shed, and the crown jewel: their homebrew scale biodiesel production facility where coop members can make up to 100 gallons of biodiesel per batch at a cost of approximately $2 per gallon, with experienced coop members looking on.

After Emily’s tour, we met Doug, Piedmont’s resident organic farmer and crop researcher. He showed us how he grows canola, leeks, tomatoes, and more on ground that used to grow tobacco.

The coolest thing about our visit was the opportunity to see the explosion of creativity and growth created when a group of people work together towards a goal. It may not be pretty, under budget, or even very productive at first, but they seem to be doing great now. See the story of how the industrial plant was built for what I mean.

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