Piedmont Biofuels Spawns Ecoindustrial Park

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

DRIVE to the end of Lorax Lane in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and you will discover a slice of the future of America. In one location, you can find - among other things -a biofuels station, a sustainable farm, a hydroponic greenhouse, a vermicomposting operation, an organic food distributor, a natural bug repellant manufacturer and a bookkeeper. And it all started with Piedmont Biofuels Industrial LLC acquiring an abandoned alloy factory on 3.5 acres on the edge of Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Piedmont Biofuels has always focused on sustainable biodiesel production. Our expertise lies in small reactor design for making fuel out of waste vegetable oil. We make, market, and sell biodiesel; consult on setting up biodiesel businesses (plants and stations); provide fuel maker and lab tech training; and run a teaching/learning biodiesel plant and farm at our Co-op location in Moncure, North Carolina where worker-members can make their own fuel from locally collected vegetable oil. Our farm is registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for oilseed crop research and market gardening.

It's been almost three years since we launched Piedmont Biofuels Industrial in the 20,000 sq. ft. abandoned plant. We built the biodiesel plant in Building Two, a four storey affair complete with a mezzanine that was already painted yellow and green - our corporate colors. The plant has the capacity to produce about one million gallons/year of biodiesel from feedstocks ranging from used fryer oil to waste chicken fat to virgin oils. We operate four B100 fueling stations around the Raleigh-Durham region, provide fuel for three more, and have a 1,600 gallon fuel truck to make deliveries. At our fuel terminal in Pittsboro, we can fill top loading tank trucks, bottom loading tractor trailers, 250 gallon totes, 55 gallon drums, and everything in between. We can fill a shot glass with B100 if you would like.

We began with four empty buildings, which we creatively named One through Four. We didn't need them all for making biodiesel, so we set out to find others who could put them to use. In order to accommodate separate uses, the Town of Pittsboro asked us to subdivide the property, and with that we needed to change the name of the road. At that point, Industrial Park Drive became Lorax Lane.

First, we sold a building to Jacques and Wendy to use to store art. They run an art import business downtown called French Connections, and they needed some warehouse space for their online trade. I referred to the sale of Building Four as our “cash recycling” project.

Building One became the home of Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO), which is known in the neighborhood as ECO. It's a small food distribution company that is backstopped by 14 organic growers who drop their wares on the dock, or into cold storage. ECO then trucks it off to fancy restaurants, or co-op grocery stores, or to the buyers of organic foods throughout the region. Some of their growers run on biodiesel, enabling them to drop a load of produce, and pick up a load of fuel on the same trip.

In the middle of Building One was a machine shop that Tami Schwerin. transformed into a shared kitchen for the facility. Tami is our beneficent property manager and resident photographer. She worked with Alicia Ravetto, the Argentinean architect known for her day lighting expertise, and a south facing clerestory floods the kitchen with natural light. As energy fanatics, we put in evacuated tubes to provide solar heated hot water for the kitchen and locker rooms.
A plant-wall biofilter was added to the kitchen. It's a simple affair - a wall of plants growing out of polymer that enjoys a continuous flow of water through a manifold on the top and a recirculating pump in a sump at the base. Volatile organic compounds in the air dissolve into the water and form nutrients for the plants, which give off oxygen, making the plant wall an “indoor air cleaning device.” We wanted to install a plant wall in the biodiesel plant next door, but it wouldn't work with atomized fats - and it is fats that we use to make biodiesel. Despite the latest technology, oil and water still don't mix.

Around the time we finished the kitchen, we received our certificate of occupancy for our fuel terminal, which allowed us to bring full tanker loads of B100 biodiesel in from far away biodiesel plants, in Iowa, or Florida, or Ohio, and redistribute the fuel to our community.

As we “scrapped out” the unnecessary vestiges of alloy production, replacing them with tanks and pumps and pipes - the stuff of biodiesel - we bought a pair of soccer nets, glued together some PVC frames, and announced that the side yard was a soccer field. One of our co-op members had an old playground that was too big for their yard, so they donated it to the project.

As rabid conservationists, we are decidedly antimowing. We can abide using our precious fuel to mow a field that is used for soccer, but mowing grass for the sake of grass makes no sense to us. So we started an active sheet mulching campaign to kill pointless grass. We dropped layers of cardboard and fine office paper, and covered it with a variety of mulches from our local mulch dealers. Along the way, we threw in some blueberry bushes, a fig tree and some chestnut trees, in the hopes that we might one day have an edible landscape.

A strange thing occurred as school, and soccer season, ended. People started converging at the Plant for “soccer night.” Our homemade soccer field filled up with an intergenerational free for all, and the playground became covered with small children. Wheeled vehicles and devices emerged, and in no time we were beset with skateboards, tricycles, scooters and the like. Most kids grow up on gravel roads in Chatham County, but inside our fence, on our little patch of pavement, a whole generation will lose their training wheels.

With fuel for sale, we put a tank of B100 in the yard, and when winter arrived, we built a straw bale passive solar shed around it to keep the fuel warm.

Screech moved in next to our fueling shed, and erected a 30-foot greenhouse for his hydroponic lettuce operation. He calls it “Screech Owl Greenhouse.” His previous operation had been destroyed when his intake fans picked up the Town of Pittsboro's herbicides - so he was looking for a place to locate that would be safe from chemical spraying.
Out behind the kitchen, we put in the usual compost heap, and beside that we built a small vermiculture operation. The worms gobble up some of the food waste that comes off of ECO's operation, and they consume all of the fine paper about the place. Junk mail, magazines and printed reports are shredded and serve as bedding for the worms.
Long after Building One was completed, Green Bean Accounting Services joined us as a tenant. Their focus is on renewable energy and the tax code. And The Abundance Foundation was formed, a nonprofit focused on local food and renewable energy. It inhabits Building One as well.

Also in the mix is HOMS, a company focused on bug repellants made from nontoxic sources. We spend our days making biodiesel and avoiding emulsions at all cost. HOMS buys biodiesel and starts work by turning it into emulsions.
When it came time to build our tank farm, we stumbled on the horrid realization that our design called for storage of 10,000 gallons of methanol on the property line, which is not allowed. So we bought the 11 acres next door. It's mostly trees, and a spring-fed creek, and owning it got us out of a regulatory error.

Our research farm in Moncure, just outside of Pittsboro, operates a cooperative fuel-making plant, an internship program, and does a vast amount of education and outreach on renewable energy. There we do seed selection and variety trials on both produce and oil producing crops. It was bursting at the seams, and needed some room, so it took up occupancy on several fallow fields behind the tank farm at Industrial. Piedmont Biofarm now has a couple of acres under cultivation, employs five people, and ships thousands of pounds of produce to restaurants, grocery stores, and our booths at area farmer's markets.

When our biodiesel production facility came on line, large tanker trucks started coming and going through the gate. Each day, Piedmont Biofuels makes, and ships about 4,000 gallons of fuel, which means we buy a tanker load of fat every other day. Our goal is to gather our feedstocks from within a 100-mile radius, and ship our product out to that same radius.

But ironically, our trucks are not the ones you will encounter as you turn onto Lorax Lane. As the farm started to blossom, ECO's business also exploded. They expanded their cold storage facilities and are currently shipping over $1 million a year worth of organic produce. Visitors to the site are as likely to encounter trucks full of food, as they are trucks full of fuel.

The connection between local food and local fuel is inescapable. In an era when people are beginning to discuss “food miles,” and attempting to eat on the “100 mile diet,” it makes sense that we would watch both food and fuel ship beyond our gate.

Chatham County, North Carolina is under intense development pressure at this point. Agriculture is being replaced by golf courses. A mystery horticultural enthusiast went looking for a place to launch a biodiversity project, and the path led to us.

We relinquished pointless spreads of turf on our site to truckloads of native species, indigenous plants that are drought resistant and meant to live here. They have been planted with pollinators in mind, and have become a good fit for Sandi's honeybees. Sandi Kronick works at ECO and put a couple of beehives near the entrance.

When we brought our biodiesel operation online, we noticed local politicians started talking about us in their speeches. So we built a stage out of rough-cut cedar upon which we intend to add an actual cedar stump. Most of the politicians who are mentioning us have never stopped by for a tour, so we thought we would get a stump ready for the stump speech season.

Our primary fuel maker, Chris Jude, took advantage of the stage and opened a music series he named “Late Shift at the Plant.” The stage has been graced by mountain string bands that came with their own moonshine, and New York bands that came with their own crowds and music critics. We are not a well-heeled venue, but we do offer biodiesel to those who can accommodate it into their touring vehicles. And we have a rich history of being the “Fuel Attendants to the Stars.” We have filled up Willie Nelson, Jack Johnson and Ben Harper tours as they have passed through.
Piedmont Biofuels does a lot of things. We make biodiesel, and we show others how to make biodiesel. We have a sliding scale consulting business which ranges from free Sunday tours at the Co-op to expensive hourly work. We do education and outreach on behalf of the fuel. We design and build “farm-scale” biodiesel plants for those who are interested in making their own fuel, and we advise regulators on everything from fuel quality analytics to road tax reform.
It makes sense that when we come to work in the morning, we are greeted by everything from flowers to vermiculture. Sometimes we meet a truck full of fat, sometimes we meet a truck full of lettuce, and sometimes it is merely a Public Works truck dropping off another load of leaves. Last year Piedmont Biofarm took most of the leaves collected in the Town of Pittsboro. They are used for mulch and soil amendment.

Nowadays when I roll the gate shut, I sometimes marvel at the many interlocking activities and businesses residing inside the fence. It appears we are about to launch the construction of a biorefinery, which will focus on turning our biodiesel coproduct, glycerin, into an entire series of products. And there is a long list of enterprises, from a cohousing project, to a vegetable oil powered generator, to a grid-tied solar array about to be launched. And that doesn't even account for the biobased oxygenate plant focused on cleaning up gasoline emissions.

The list is long. And I suppose that is because there is a lot to be done if we are ever to achieve sustainability, or a functional approach to energy production and use on this planet.

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