The closest place for Charlotte residents to get low-emission, 100-percent biodiesel (B100) is 130 miles away in Asheville. But thanks to a former Peugeot dealer, a corn furnace salesman and a few others, that's about to change.
Seven Charlotte residents have formed a cooperative business called Metrolina Biofuels to bring a public biodiesel pump to Charlotte Energy Solutions, a new store selling alternative, natural energy for homes and cars.
B100 is a vegetable-oil based, nontoxic fuel that can run in a diesel engine car without any conversion. It's produced domestically and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 85 percent compared to petroleum. Until now, the best option for environmentally conscious motorists was a Johnston Road station that dispensed B20 -- a fuel blend made up of 80 percent regular diesel gas and only 20 percent renewable resources.
George Bostic, the former Peugeot dealer, now restores old diesel trucks. The market for the vintage trucks, formerly thought of as heaps of junk, has soared because of consumer interest in alternative fuels. "Biodiesel is going to take off, and when it does, it will be huge," Bostic says. "Because of the energy thing. Because of the situation in the Middle East. Because of global warming, air pollution, everything, it's got to happen. In our minds, there's no question."
"We've got to do this ourselves," says Mark Englander, owner of Charlotte Energy Solutions in the Cherry neighborhood on Baldwin Avenue, a small, bungalow-lined residential street off Third Street, just southeast of downtown. "We can't rely on anybody else to do it for us. Bush certainly isn't going to do anything about it."
Cornstalks sway in a patch out front of Englander's store and appear in the illustrated marquee on the side of the old brick building. Inside Charlotte Energy Solutions, stoves line the bordering walls. Opening a panel on one stove, Englander reveals the contents to me: a giant pile of corn, more than 50 pounds of it. The thermostat-controlled stoves range in price from $2,000 to $4,000, and it takes one bushel (costing $3-$3.50) to produce 1,000 BTUs of heat that can warm a 3,500-square-foot house for two days. To produce the same amount of heat with natural gas, it would cost about $20. And yes, when the stove first gets fired up, it smells like popcorn.
What makes corn work as a fuel source is ethanol, another source of alternative energy exploding in popularity around the country. Normal petroleum-run cars can handle a fuel blend with 10 percent ethanol (E10), which is available at select gas stations. There are three places to fuel up with ethanol in Charlotte: Sunoco on Woodlawn Road, Fuel Land on Johnston Road and Caton's Grocery on Statesville Road.
Still a rarity to the public, special FlexFuel vehicles can take up to 85 percent ethanol (E85) and just require a small engine modification off the assembly line. The state of North Carolina owns 5,500 FlexFuel cars in its fleet.
The biofuel movement has more advocates than just stereotypical green-obsessed liberals. According to Larry Shirley, State Director of Energy for the North Carolina Department of Administration, "You're going to see a very rapid and significant expansion of the use of both ethanol and biodiesel as replacements for gasoline and diesel fuel. The industry is struggling to build the plants fast enough to keep up with the demand."
There are 95 major ethanol plants in the country and 34 currently in construction. North Carolina has no major ethanol plants to date, but plans have been made for three. If all the ethanol that those three plants plan to produce (350 million gallons) were consumed in state, it would account for 8 to 9 percent of the total gasoline market. (Currently, none of North Carolina's fuel is manufactured in state, resulting in a 10- to 15-billion-dollar petroleum tab without the economic trickledown of job creation.)
Another option in the eco-friendly fuel world is getting a diesel engine converted to run on pure vegetable oil. Unlike using biodiesel -- a vegetable oil chemically altered to stay thin and runny in regular car engines -- running your car on straight vegetable oil requires buying a conversion pump (which Englander sells at his store), then heating up the oil and filtering out impurities.
Most conversion pumps cost $1,000 to $1,200, but as veggie oil users point out, it doesn't take long to cover the initial investment. That's because vegetable oil users can get the oil from local restaurants for free. Restaurants typically welcome grassroots oil foragers because most establishments have to pay a rendering company to pick up their used oil.
Englander gets most of his oil from the Penguin and sometimes from a Chinese restaurant, whose oil needs less filtering for animal fat and water. Vegetarian restaurants have the cleanest oil, Englander says.
One knock on veggie oil and biodiesel is that the fuel can gel up or freeze in cold weather, but there are ways around it. Englander says adding some extra kerosene thins out the fuel. Another option for biodiesel is mixing more diesel with B100 to create B80.
The B100 for sale in Charlotte at the pump outside Charlotte Energy Solutions will come from a plant in Kentucky. The price per gallon will be on par with the national average for biodiesel, right now at $3.29. For those who think that's expensive, compare it to petrol prices in Europe (in Great Britain, gas costs the equivalent of $6.73 a gallon here). Gasoline is heavily subsidized in the US, and there's no guarantee that prices won't get closer to the European standard, where diesel engine and fuel-efficient cars are becoming the norm due to the high cost of petroleum.
While the pump outside Englander's store will have factory-produced B100, Metrolina Biofuels members will also make their own biodiesel, a fuel version of moonshine, that won't be available for sale because regulations and testing requirements make licensing your home brew a difficult and expensive process.
The model for the co-op was taken from successful start-ups in Asheville and Pittsboro. Two years after Blue Ridge Biofuels started up as a couple of guys brewing vegetable oil in the basement of a warehouse, their company is valued at $2 million. Piedmont Biofuels, a co-op started by some continuing education students at Central Carolina Community College, is about to go public to sell a million gallons a year. (Metrolina Biofuels is definitely in its infancy. The used gas pump the co-op just purchased is being repaired because the meter on the pump doesn't go above $1.99 a gallon.)
It's anyone's guess how Charlotte, which has a reputation as a big business, eco-indifferent city, will take to the concept. There are more than 560,000 registered vehicles in Mecklenburg County traveling an average of 27,891,355 daily miles. Charlotte is currently ranked as the 12th worst ozone-polluting city in a 2005 study conducted by the American Lung Association,
But State Energy Director Shirley sees Charlotte turning over a new leaf. "I'm more encouraged than I ever have been about Charlotte, both by local leadership and in the business community." Last year, Charlotte's city council bought 27 hybrid cars, which get roughly double the miles per gallon of a normal vehicle by utilizing both petroleum and electricity, and has plans to buy more. Coca-Cola's Charlotte representative has bought 200 hybrids for the company and plans to buy 200 more. In June, Bank of America announced a hybrid program to reimburse up to 21,000 employees $3,000 each for purchasing a hybrid car. One motivating factor for the city to improve air quality is that a failure to bring pollution levels back to federal attainment will result in an abeyance of federal funding for highways, a consequence that will harm city growth.
Shirley rattles off a laundry list of practical ways to reduce fuel consumption that would work if people followed them: public transportation, van and carpooling, riding a bike, and maintaining vehicles properly (inflating tires, abiding by speed limits, making sure the engine is tuned and regularly replacing the air filter).
As for the public biofuel pump, scheduled to open in September, Metrolina Biofuels' goals are modest. Roughly eight million gallons of petroleum fuel are pumped in Mecklenburg County, and Metrolina hopes initially to sell only 500 weekly gallons.
"Here's Asheville, and we can get figures on what they're doing," says Bostic. "Here's Chapel Hill, we can figure on what they're doing, but those places are like different worlds from here. What the public reaction will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, we have no idea. If we run out of fuel the first day, we'll go, 'Yeah!' But we might go 'Yeah!' if we sell a pint's worth."