Times are hard in the biofuels industry right now, but Clean Energy
Biofuels is still standing -- one of the last two biodiesel manufacturing
companies left in Georgia, according to co-owner Tyson Johnson.
The biofuels business boomed in the first part of the 2000s, helped by generous federal grant programs and incentives designed to build alternative fuel sources and ease the country's addiction to fossil fuels.
But most of those incentives have disappeared, said Rick Huszagh, another owner and co-founder of the company, which manufactures its biodiesel in a plant in rural Walton County near Monroe. Actually, Huszagh would like to see all energy incentives and tax breaks disappear -- if the tax breaks that petroleum-based producers get would also disappear.
"If we were playing on a level playing field, we'd be OK," he said.
But the difference in incentives isn't the only factor pushing biodiesel sales down now. Gasoline prices are falling, while European companies now compete for the same raw materials Clean Energy and other biodiesel companies use to make the alternative fuel -- waste grease and oil from restaurants.
"It's looking pretty ugly," Huszagh said.
But the company's owners plan to stay the course, they said.
"They're a group dedicated to sustainable energy. There are people who share the same value, and it's the community they serve that keeps them going," said Bob Synk, the company's Athens-based sales manager.
The company recently installed big arrays of solar collectors at its production facility outside Monroe -- Clean Energy may be the only biofuel plant in the country entirely powered by solar energy, according to Huszagh. On a recent day, he pointed to several big solar arrays soaking up sun at the plant, near Huszagh's family farm. Some of the arrays convert solar energy into heat that warms the restaurant waste oil the plant uses to produce biodiesel; other arrays convert sunlight into electricity, which runs the plant's machines. The solar collectors produce more energy than the plant needs, so some electricity is fed back into the power grid, Synk said.
Last month, Clean Energy opened its first biodiesel fueling station in Atlanta, on Arizona Avenue near Little Five Points. But a big portion of the company's sales go to a reliable base of large customers such as the Georgia Power Company, Synk said.
"We'll keep weathering the storm," said Huszagh, who founded a company called Down to Earth Energy in 2007 with partners Crista Carrell, Tyson Johnson and McKay Johnson. In the company's first years, the partners worked with engineers at the University of Georgia on research projects designed to find a better catalyst to use in the biodiesel refining process.
The company became Clean Energy Biofuels after the partners last year acquired an Atlanta biofuels company of the same name from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which promotes the development and use of alternative energy sources. They liked the Clean Energy name, and adopted it, Synk said.
Clean Energy produces about half a million gallons of biodiesel energy, but has built capacity for more, Tyson Johnson said.
The production process isn't very complicated.
On weekdays, Alex Johnston drives a tanker truck around Atlanta to collect used cooking oil from restaurants -- about eight to 15 a day, probably around 300 in all, he said. A few years ago, restaurants would give the stuff away, but now restaurant owners expect to be paid. Like many other recyclable materials, waste cooking oil has become a commodity with a value, Synk said.
The company will soon be collecting waste oil in Clarke County through an agreement with the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department, Synk said.
After collecting the restaurant oil, Johnston hauls it to Walton County, where plant operator and Athens Technical College graduate Ryan Hicks takes over.
Devices at the plant filter out impurities such as water and charred food, and the filtered oil is then fed into tanks where it is mixed and heated with methanol and a catalyst. Out the other end comes biodiesel -- and glycerin, a byproduct sold for use in feedstocks, pharmaceuticals and other products.
"The chemistry is not very complicated," Tyson Johnson said.
(c) 2012 Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Ga.)
Visit the Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Ga.) at www.onlineathens.com
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