NOT LONG AFTER ARRIVING in North Carolina, I became enamored with that exotic Southern delicacy: deep-fried turkey. Each time I fried a bird, however, I was left with gallons of used cooking oil. The recycler in me found it hard to throw such waste in the woods, so in 2002 I began brewing it into homemade biodiesel. At first, my friends and family found it “quirky.”

Biodiesel is rather easy to make. You start with a toxic noxious fossil fuel product – methanol – and you blend it with lye to make a caustic mixture, which is similar to furniture stripper. You then takethat concoction and blend it with liquid fat, and if you have the recipe right, biodiesel is born.

I mixed my first batches in a blender, and measured their success by whether or not they separated into two discrete phases. The top layer was bright yellow (biodiesel) and could go into any unmodified diesel engine. The bottom was a dark viscous cocktail of glycerine, methanol, soaps and fatty acids. Glycerine, it’s important to note, is a gooey alcohol that you don’t want anywhere near your engine’s combustion chamber.

Soon, I was able to meet the fuel needs of my tractor, but when Rachel showed up in her Dodge pickup truck with a 100-litre tank in the back, my appetite for deep-fried turkey, healthy as it may have been, simply wasn’t up to the task.

Then Leif arrived in his Volkswagen.

Which meant we needed more fuel. And even more fuel. And still more fuel.

We formed Piedmont Biofuels, a biodiesel co-op, so that members could pool resources to make their own fuel out of locally collected, used vegetable oil. Biodiesel was finding its way into the limelight, and we watched as producing the stuff shifted from being “quirky” to “good.”

We clung to a vision of meeting our own fuel needs as we replaced our 100-litre reactor with a 275-litre tank, which we then ripped out and upgraded to a 1000-litre one. And so on, right up to the 373-million-litre-per-year plant where Rachel, Leif and I still work today.

We continue to hang on to the idea of gathering feedstock from within 100 miles of our plant and selling our fuel within the same 100-mile circle. We believe in a micro-nodal approach to fuelling ourselves.

In Fairview, Alberta, they have canola. Their biodiesel should come from that feedstock. In Iowa, they have soy. Iowan biodiesel is best derived from soy. We are based in North Carolina, the poultry capital of planet Earth, and we make our fuel out of waste chicken fat and used vegetable oil.

This vision of self-reliant, sustainable biodiesel production is shared by the folks at the Everdale Organic Farm and Environmental Learning Centre near Hillsburgh, Ontario. They have spun off the Everpure Biodiesel Co-op. Projects like theirs – small-scale and powered by used vegetable oil – dot the landscape in North America.

But there is something about the human animal that says if you can make a litre, you should make a hundred litres. And if you can do that, you should churn out a thousand, and if you can make a million litres you really should be aiming for a hundred million. Every small-scale producer has had to check the urge to grow.

When producers fail to resist the temptation, sustainability takes a back seat to greed, and when that happens, the industry loses its way.

During the recent push for bioenergy in the US, small producers watched as hundred-million-gallon processing plants went up in US harbours, and when they couldn’t be fed with domestically grown, virgin soybean oil, the captains of the industry assured everyone that cheap abundant palm oil was on its way to our shores.

The US industry burned down the rainforests of Indonesia and planted oil palms all in a row. They filled tanker ships with the oil and sent it to Seattle where they spun the oil into biodiesel. There they put it on a train and shipped it to Raleigh-Durham Airport on the other side of the continent. And when Raleigh-Durham had burned enough fuel, it received a prize for its “green” operations.

Those who were focused on small-scale, local fuel wanted to stop the madness, but their cries were drowned out by the sound of bulldozers building ever-larger processing plants. While sustainably minded producers were carefully calculating their energy balance to make sure they were making significantly more renewable energy than the fossil energy they were consuming, others were primarily focused on their balance sheets.

Succumbing to that “more is always better” message, the biofuel industry didn’t pay much attention to the idea that perhaps food shouldn’t be converted into fuel.

And it turns out that biodiesel – the type of biofuel we make at Piedmont – doesn’t really do that anyway. Whenever it competes against food, it loses. The biodiesel industry still has not figured out how to take $6-oil and convert it into $5-fuel. But ethanol producers have. And since both ethanol and biodiesel are lumped together as “biofuels,” biodiesel gets included in the food-versus-fuel debate.

In fact, not much of that palm oil ever arrived. Most of it was eaten before it could be shipped.

In a world of caloric surplus, where governments pay farmers not to grow food, corn-based ethanol and other biofuels, including biodiesel, look like a great idea. When global caloric consumption rises to match caloric output, they look idiotic.

When food is involved, biodiesel goes from “good” to “evil” in the public’s mind.

Today, much of the US’s big biodiesel capacity has shut down or has been sold for scrap. The industry peaked at around 1.6 billion litres in 2007, which is not much more than a rounding number in the country’s fuel mix.

Canada’s industry never exploded onto the scene because it couldn’t compete with the rich subsidies paid to US producers. Yet small producers are still standing all over Canada and the United States.

In Owen Sound, Ontario, Lougheed Biodiesel makes fuel from off-spec margarine and serves it up to local snow ploughs and school buses. In Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, Milligan BioTech relies on prairie canola and in Ukiah, California, Yokayo Biofuels has built a small enterprise collecting waste vegetable oil from area restaurants and turning it into fuel for its community.

Self-reliant farmers who wish to free themselves from the clutches of petroleum are growing sunflowers and crushing them for oil and meal. The oil becomes biodiesel, and the meal is fed to livestock.

Then there are the home brewers and co-ops and biodiesel collectives. It’s being done. Biodiesel is being produced sustainably.

And remarkably, the industry has taken notice. The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association held its fifth annual conference for an enthusiastic audience in December 2008. The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance unveiled its draft principles in Texas in August 2008. The Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels, a global initiative based in Switzerland, opened its US office last fall, and the Sustainability Task Force of the National Biodiesel Board made a splash at its annual conference in San Francisco.

It appears that sustainability is creeping in. Suddenly, energy balance and local feedstocks and food-versus-fuel and rainforest preservation and farmland allocation and everything else that bears on sustainability is coming to the fore throughout much of the nascent biodiesel industry.

At Piedmont Biofuels, we are delighted to have a front-row seat in the discussions. The product of a small-scale accident, our co-op is still plugging away. We’ve made compromises and gone around in circles, but we’re still standing. And we’re still wedded to the idea that sustainable biodiesel can happen. That soon it will go back to being “good” again.

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