The company, founded in 2002, creates fuels that have significantly better emission profiles than those of any current fossil fuel choices by aggregating fats, oils, and greases from within fifty miles of its plant in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and converting them into cleaner-burning biodiesel and boiler fuels. The company then distributes those fuels to customers within the same fifty-mile radius, creating a “community-scale biodiesel” plant. We spoke with Co-founder Lyle Estill to help us understand the current and future state of the biodiesel industry.
When was your company founded and what growth have you experienced since that time?
Lyle Estill: We started making fuel in the backyard in 2002. That’s the last time many of us went to a gas station to fill up. We broke ground on our commercial plant, with a 1 million gallon per year capacity, in 2005. We went from three of us making fuel for our families to a co-op of 500 members. Revenues went from $0 to $4.5 million at peak. Renewable fuels have enjoyed a wild ride over the past 13 years that we have been involved. Since entering commercial production, our personal best was 1.3 million gallons in one year. Our personal worst was 40,000. Sometimes biodiesel looks like genius. Sometimes it appears foolhardy. We’ve enjoyed both.
Who are your primary customers?
LE: We have two primary off-take customers. The first is our cooperative. This involves filling up individual cars, trucks, tanks, and boilers with small quantities at a time – many 14-gallon fills. The second is oil companies. We sell 100 percent biodiesel (or B100) to oil companies who blend our product with petroleum fuels and sell it in lower percentage blends like B20 (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent petroleum diesel) or B2, B5, etc.
What are the largest challenges associated with the biofuel industry and how are you working to overcome them?
LE: Energy policy is far and away our greatest challenge. The biodiesel industry has been a terrific roller coaster ride. Sometimes there are production incentives. Sometimes they lapse. Sometimes demand for clean air drives up margins. Sometimes policymakers lose interest in the space. We work hard to explain how fossil fuels have successfully externalized their true costs and are actually the most heavily subsidized product in the average consumer’s market basket. Our preference would be no subsidy for anything ever. If we stopped subsidizing petroleum products, we would clobber them.
Does your bottom line directly benefit from your sustainable business practices? If so, how?
LE: We think so. Many of our customers pay a premium for our products because they understand that they are sustainably produced. Our products offer freedom from the petroleum grid. When you are driving around on B100 biodiesel from Piedmont, you are free of war in the Middle East, free of dead pelicans on the Gulf Coast, free of tithing to Halliburton. Our products reduce our consumer’s carbon footprint, which lightens their contribution to climate change.
What business practice are you most proud of?
LE: We are very proud of the work we have done on life cycle analysis. By successfully measuring the amount of fossil energy required to make a gallon of fuel, and comparing it to the amount of renewable energy made available by that same gallon, we have demonstrated significant environmental and air quality gains. Academics and others cite much of our work in this area. There is a high likelihood that we are making the lowest-carbon fuel in America.
“FOR US, CLIMATE CHANGE IS THE MORAL IMPERATIVE OF OUR TIME, AND WE ARE FULLY INVESTED IN DELIVERING REAL-WORLD SOLUTIONS THAT CAN CHANGE OUR RELATIONSHIP TO THIS GARDEN PLANET.”
Do you have any predictions for the future of the biofuel industry?
LE: Today the biodiesel industry is on the ropes. We are in another “foolhardy” period. Depressed petroleum prices combined with high global demand for fats, oils, and greases, along with an absence of energy policy, make for a horrible environment for biodiesel. America does not seem to know where it wants biodiesel to be in its energy mix.
What’s next for Piedmont Biofuels?
LE: Biochar. By combusting wood chips in the absence of oxygen we are able to create a high-value char product that can be used in filtration, and when fully charred, is a valuable soil amendment. We believe biochar will enable us to move from carbon neutrality to carbon negativity. For us, climate change is the moral imperative of our time, and we are fully invested in delivering real-world solutions that can change our relationship to this garden planet.