Alternative energy has been hailed as America’s saving grace. It promises to free us from our dependency on foreign oil, to lower our cost of living, and to save mankind from near-sure extinction. According to Republicans, Democrats and economists alike, alternative energy jobs are also likely to save our flailing economy.
So, why the heck did the good citizens in Jackson County, Georgia work so hard to drive Agri-Cycle, a biodiesel plant, out of business?
An Alternate Energy Universe
First, it’s important to understand biofuel production beyond the general buzz. In a nutshell: it’s a fledgling industry with a lot of room for mistakes and misunderstandings.
“There is a high demand for alternative fuels but we just don’t have the technology to do it right yet, so everyone’s trying to use old tech in a new way,” says Rick Jordan, an attorney at Womble, Carlyle et al in Washington D.C. Beyond his extensive work in law, Jordan is also a microbiologist and chemical engineer. He worked as a microbiology researcher for the University of Texas and as a chemical engineer for oil giant Exxon, prior to seeking a law degree. Now he represents Poet, the number one ethanol producer in the country, among other companies.
“There’s a reason oil companies aren’t big into biofuels, they don’t fully understand it either,” explains Jordan.
That’s not to say biofuels can’t be done, they can and are. Biofuel production plants exist all over the world. You’ve noticed their work at your local grocery store – in the high prices of corn, chicken and other foods which increased in price despite the recent plunge in gas prices. That’s because biofuels are made from feedstock, i.e. plants and animal fat, the most common of which is corn. Chickens eat corn so they’re now more costly to feed, given the jump in the price of corn, leaving you standing there with a $100 worth of groceries that fills only a couple bags at best.
Therein lies the first rub in biofuel production, in order to get high-grade fuels like gasoline and jet fuel, high grade feedstock is a necessity given our current technology -- but that competes with our food supply.
Grocery shoppers are not the only ones to feel the pinch of rising corn prices. It is the free fatty acid in the feedstock that is needed to create biofuel; the higher the content, the more expensive the raw material --the more expensive the raw material, the costlier the biofuel at the pump.
According to William Roberts, Ph.D, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at N.C. State University, 70% of the final price of biofuel comes from the cost of feedstocks “so you don’t want the process tied to one feedstock which in turn is vulnerable to market swing and unduly high costs.”
For now, only biodiesel can be extracted from low-grade feedstock, such as waste crop oils (like used restaurant grease), animal fats, even lipids from algae, or a combination thereof. That’s good, because we don’t eat that stuff, but not everyone’s happy with that choice either.
Waste Not, Want Not
If we can recycle waste products, then we gain cheap fuel and our independence from foreign oil producers. We also create jobs here at home. Those are facts. But it is also fact that waste is often stinky and/or messy and so is the manufacturing process.
In America, we don’t want to live next to a paper-producing plant, or a tire manufacturing plant, or a biodiesel plant. We don’t want the mess, the noise or the smells in our neighborhood. The strange thing is that when we shipped all the smelly jobs overseas, we missed them, we want them back, and we need them back – still we rather live in a nice, neat sterile world. It isn’t going to happen that way.
If we use fossil fuels, there will be oil spills and sludge breaks. If we use corn to make biofuel there will be thick blankets of dust to contend with. If we use used fryer grease in home-adapted cars, the occupants will crave French Fries for a while and then they may feel a bit queasy. If we use animal fats and greasy blends to make biodiesel, the production plant will smell like a chicken slaughter house. It’s a simple thing, really – you can’t have one without the other.
We have smelly, messy waste already. We don’t manufacture stench just to make biofuel feedstock. Restaurants have to dispose of used cooking oil everyday. Slaughter houses have to dispose of skin, fats, and other waste – everyday. Corn syrup producers that supply the soft drink and food industries have low standard waste to ditch. And, so it goes. The question is what do we do with it? Do we store the mess and the stink somewhere to fester or do we clean it up and use it for another purpose?
“There is no smell from the biofuel processing, if there is any odor at all, it comes from the feedstock,” explains Jordan. The same stuff we would cram in a landfill anyway. Betcha got one or two landfills in every county in the land.
Dance a Little Jig, Trade the Poke for a Pig
The citizens of Jackson County wanted Agri-Cycle gone because, they said, of the smell. They complained of the smell of chicken feedstock despite the fact that the plant was built out in the boonies on the former site of a chicken slaughter house and processing plant. They complained of flies in an agricultural county where livestock outnumbers people and flies outnumber both on many a hot summer day.
There was much ado about nothing as the EPA found no pollution problems. Still, the community continued to worry the issue of where to hang their cries of foul until an accidental fire at the plant granted them a hook. Agri-Cycle shut down in the end. Owner Dick Harville says he’ll use the land for something else – probably pig farming. Pigs, it seems, are something the neighbors understand and can live with -- smells, flies and all.
Agri-Cycle is not the only biodiesel plant to run into community misunderstandings.
“In the case of our client, it was citizen opposition to a biofuels plant that had not adequately educated the surrounding town about its product and how safe it and the manufacturing process is,” says Henry Fawell, head of the Strategic Communications Practice at Womble, Carlyle et al. “When a freak welding accident and fatality occurred at the plant, unrelated to the product, that lack of communication came home to roost.”
“Citizens tried to shut the plant down permanently. Much of their anger was born out of ignorance which is the company's fault,” Fawell explains. “That opposition could have been mitigated had the company been doing strategic community/media relations at the outset of its arrival in town.”
The Take Away
One would think, given the massive government support of biofuels, that education efforts for the masses would already be aggressively underway. Of course, one would also think that most communities could put this one together on their own, but apparently not. So here’s the upshot:
1) If we drive biofuel plants away, they will go the same way as all our other manufacturers – to India, China, Mexico, etc and we might go from super-power to third-world status pretty quickly.
2) If we do not produce alternative fuels, foreign fossil fuel producers will control our lives and manipulate our living standards up until the point the earth’s supply of fossil fuels runs dry. What, do you think, we will do then?
3) If we do not produce alternative fuels, we face more rounds of $4.00 plus per gallon gas prices which some of us will find harder to pay without new jobs we could have had at biofuel plants and related industries.
4) If we manufacture anything, we will need fuel to do it and fossil fuel prices may drive the price of our own goods beyond our reach, which, by the way, is another third-world status indicator.
Think I’m exaggerating? Really? Look around; two years ago, did you think this was where America would be standing economically today?
Technology will catch up and solve the problems with biofuel production shortly. An invention called Centia at N.C. State University is already a promising breakthrough and there are a few others. The reach is not that far.
But in the end, Americans have to embrace biofuel plants – or let them go. If we let them go, life will really stink.
---Pam Baker is a green energy writer. See more here altenergywriter.com