Growing pains plague Triad biofuels

by Amy Kingsley

The floor was still sticky last week in the High Point warehouse that, until recently, housed the area’s only biodiesel production and retail company. A smell clung to the property, too, a nauseating mix of stale French fries and old grease. But the smell and tacky film underfoot were practically all that remained of Triad Biofuels, which folded last week. The tanks, pipes and drums lined up in promotional pictures dating back to November, when Robert Aldrich and Gabe Neeriemer unveiled their company, were gone. The owners had packed them off to Iowa the day before. “We were doing pretty good with it,” Aldrich said of his biodiesel business. “We were building a regular client base.” Aldrich stood in the middle of a prefab metal building. In one hand he held a beaker full of biodiesel; in the other he brandished a propane torch. He lit the torch and buried the blue flame in the amber liquid. “Probably right now the tip of that flame is about four hundred degrees,” Aldrich said. The biodiesel extinguished the flame. Unfortunately for Aldrich and Neeriemer, such demonstrations did not satisfy the High Point inspections department, which shut down biodiesel production at the plant in mid-July after months of wrangling. The confrontation began in November; after Aldrich and Neeriemer announced that they would begin to sell to the public the biodiesel they had quietly been making for their own use. The announcement drew the attention of city inspections chief Ed Brown, who demanded building plans and engineering reports. The business owners submitted chemical reports and the paperwork that accompanied the equipment they purchased from Piedmont Biofuels, the company that supplies almost all the state’s biodiesel producers, but the city wanted more. Brown asked Aldrich to hire an engineer to certify the safety of the operation. “Both our fire and building inspectors followed up with them several times,” Brown said. “Finally in May we ended up giving them a stop-work order.” When that wasn’t heeded, the city shut off power to the building. The only way Aldrich and Neeriemer could get it restored was to sign a sworn affidavit promising to cease biofuel production. The agreement also required them to remove the remaining biodiesel from the building. “Shutting off the power is a last resort,” Brown said. “But we just weren’t getting anywhere.” Aldrich and Neeriemer moved into the warehouse on Dorris Avenue with the ambition of bringing a new industry to High Point. Small houses with sagging porches flank their business, and the shells of mothballed furniture factories sit on a nearby artery. Aldrich thought biodiesel might provide jobs for former furniture workers. The alternative fuel has already caught on in the Triangle, where there are nearly a dozen retail outlets, and in the western part of the state. He got involved in alternative fuels in 1998, when he first converted his own car to run on straight vegetable oil. Two years ago, he started making biodiesel out of used vegetable oil from local restaurants. B100, which is 100 percent biodiesel, can fuel any diesel car, no engine modifications required. It can also be blended with regular diesel fuel; the city of Greensboro uses a 20 percent biodiesel mix in many of its fleet vehicles. Biodiesel itself is nontoxic. Actress Darryl Hannah famously drank a pint of it to prove the point. Glycerin, the byproduct, is also harmless and found in products like soap. But the chemicals used to coax fryer grease into fuel are pretty serious. Methanol, a wood grain alcohol, is volatile and highly flammable, and Aldrich built a lean-to outside his building so he could mix his chemicals in relative isolation. That lean-to was the first thing that caught the attention of city inspectors, who told Aldrich he needed a permit to build it. Lyle Estill, one of the founders of Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, said he and his partners had to wade through two years of red tape until they secured the permits they needed to start building. “It was brutal,” he said. “But we are chemical plants, correct? You spend a whole bunch of time making sure that’s safe before you put it in somebody’s backyard.” Estill said he hadn’t heard of any other biodiesel manufacturers in the state that had been shut down by city inspectors. But he didn’t sound surprised, given the relative novelty of the industry. “It’s new,” he said. “It’s absolutely new. That makes it hard for the operators and hard for the regulators.” Both Brown and Aldrich said the grassroots nature of the commercial biodiesel industry might have contributed to the confusion about certification. “It is an emerging technology,” Brown said. “That makes it incumbent upon the designer to prove it’s safe.” Aldrich said he thought the information he submitted was adequate to secure a permit. “They’re expecting us to come up with an engineer in biofuels to come up with the code,” he said. “But the pioneers in this industry have already come up with a standard, which is what we were following.” Biodiesel producers come in two broad varieties, Estill said. Commercial producers make biodiesel for retail sale, and the backyard producers make it for themselves and maybe their friends. Piedmont Biofuels does both, providing biodiesel to gas stations around the Triangle and teaching local farmers how to make their own. Triad Biofuels, Estill said, is sort of a cross between the two. Piedmont Biofuels produces 1 million gallons of biodiesel a year and is considered small for a commercial operation. Triad Biofuels, on the other hand, produces only about 100,000 gallons annually. Aldrich started his business as a general repair shop for Mercedes-Benzes and Volkswagens and gradually started to specialize in grease kits, the modifications that allow cars to run on vegetable oil. He modified one of Republican NC Sen. Stan Bingham’s cars and is talking with Trekky Records in Carrboro to modify vans for two of their bands. Bingham, who is a big proponent of alternative fuels, said he is looking for ways to try to help the company. CBS News recently contacted the senator to write a story about his Volkswagen bug, which he has been fueling with vegetable oil for a year and a half. In the repair shop’s main bay, an old Volkswagen bus and a much newer bug waited for inspection, their hoods wide open. In the office, Aldrich and Neeriemer parked toy versions of the same vehicles on a narrow windowsill. Above the desk hung a picture of Jerry Garcia, a man to whom Aldrich bears a passing resemblance. One of the most frustrating things about the city’s crackdown on their business was that it stalled a collaboration with the school system to fill buses with biodiesel. Aldrich said his company was working on an agreement to provide biodiesel to the school system for a little more than cost. Participating restaurants (those that donate used fryer grease) could have displayed decals in their windows. A local doctor and a respiratory therapist in New Jersey had already gotten on board to extol the health benefits of biodiesel buses, Aldrich said. “Essentially it would make the air easier to breathe,” Aldrich said. “And the government would subsidize the whole thing for the schools.” The biodiesel business may soon take root in other parts of the Triad. Neeriemer and Aldrich are splitting the business, and Neeriemer plans to move his company, now called Oak Biofuels, to Greensboro. Aldrich will keep the name Triad Biofuel and will continue to install grease kits. He said government officials from other municipalities have contacted him, and some of them have offered economic incentive packages to try to lure his business to their area. “I will probably end up leaving High Point,” he said. “But I do like High Point, and I would stay if the city gets around to wanting me here.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at