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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 00:00

Clean and renewable, biodiesel takes off in WNC

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When Greg Kidd saw his odometer hit 250,000 miles last spring, he knew he would reluctantly be catapulted into the market for a new car sooner rather than later.

 

Given his propensity to eek every last mile out of a vehicle, his new purchase would clearly be with him for a while. He didn’t want to spend another 10 years stuck with a gas-gulping, emission-spewing traditional vehicle.

“Biodiesel definitely crossed my mind. I am all for renewable energy,” said Kidd, who lives in Waynesville. “When you think about making fuel out of an agricultural product, that makes a huge amount of sense. It’s renewable and it also cuts down emissions.”

Kidd spent three months on a waiting list before scoring the car he wanted: a VW Jetta with a turbo diesel engine. Unfortunately, he’s been driving the car for nearly eight months, but has yet to fill up on a tank of biodiesel. The closest biodiesel pumps are 30 minutes away in Asheville or Cullowhee.

“It is currently completely inconvenient for me to fill up on biodiesel. If it was available, I would absolutely use it,” Kidd said.

That’s exactly what Thomas Morgan, owner of Mountain Energy, is betting on. Morgan, a Waynesville businessman, will begin supplying 23 of his gas stations with biodiesel this summer for the same price as regular diesel.

“In the past, it has been cost prohibitive and there’s not been the availability of supply,” Morgan said. “It just makes sense. It’s the right product at the right time.”

Smoky Mountain Biofuels, an operation based in Sylva, is manufacturing the biodiesel. Morgan is the first major operator of gas stations in the state to offer biodiesel to customers on a mass scale. Today only 16 gas stations offer biodiesel statewide. Morgan’s foresight will more than double the total number of biodiesel pumps in the state and propel Western North Carolina to the forefront of the biofuel movement not only in the state, but in the southeast.

David Francis, another diesel driver in Waynesville, was ecstatic when he heard about Morgan’s plans. Ever since buying a diesel Jeep Liberty last year, he comes up with excuses to make trips to Asheville so he can hit the biodiesel pump there. If biodiesel was available locally, he predicts more people would make the switch to a diesel vehicle like he and his wife, Donna, did.

When they were in the market for a new vehicle last summer, they didn’t want to be part of the problem any more. Given the world’s dwindling oil supply, they wanted to do what they could to make the country less dependent on dangerous parts of the world for oil.

“We were worried that we really don’t have control over our oil and gas in our country and we felt diesel would be the safest way to go,” Francis said.

Morgan shared the same reasons for installing biodiesel pumps at his stations.

“If we can become less dependent on foreign oil, that’s good for the country,” Morgan said.

Morgan predicts truck drivers will be big clients of the biodiesel. It will be the same price as regular diesel, is better for the engine, has just as much power and gets better mileage. What’s not to like?

“When you look at the characteristics of the fuel, they aren’t inferior to diesel fuel,” Morgan said.

Maintenance workers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been fueling up their trucks and equipment — from dozers to dump trucks — with biodiesel from Smoky Mountain Biofuels for the past six months.

“The only comments we’ve heard so far is that they seem to be running a little better,” said Hal Varnedoe, maintenance director for the Smokies. The biodiesel has a higher BTU, so it has more power.

“I think biodiesel is a high quality fuel. If it can be provided at a competitive price and convenient locations, a person can chose between the fuel and not the price or availability,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s vision is one that is sure to catch on with other gas stations, especially if they see it paying off for Morgan.

Sam Gray, operations manager of Smoky Mountain Biofuels, said Morgan would be remembered as the first.

“He sees the transition and he wants to be in the lead,” Gray said.

Hops Gas Station in Cullowhee has been offering biodiesel from Smoky Mountain Biofuels since December. The owners, Sam and Michelle Hopkins, said it has been slow to catch on, however, with just three or four customers a week buying the biodiesel.

“We sell some, but not as much as we thought we would,” Michelle said. “The ones we do have are very faithful. Some are still fearful of it.”

Another draw back has been the price. Biodiesel has been selling for $2.89 a gallon.

“Regular diesel has been a whole lot cheaper than that,” Michelle said. But diesel inevitably will go up with the advent of summer, along with the rest of gas. Meanwhile, the dedicated have been willing to pay more.

“Most people who are purchasing it are doing so because they want to purchase a cleaner fuel and don’t want to support foreign oil,” Michelle said.

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