For about three weeks, Red Birch Energy in Bassett Forks has been crushing canola seeds into canola oil and processing canola oil into biodiesel fuel.
Dean Price, half owner of Red Birch Energy and owner of Red Birch Country Market, said this is the first "closed-loop system" in the entire country. That means the canola is grown "locally," is crushed and processed into biodiesel fuel at Red Birch Energy, and is sold on the same site at Red Birch Country Market.
Jenna Higgins, director of communications for the National Biodiesel Board, agreed that "it's the only one that we know of."
She said some other businesses process biodiesel fuel and sell it, but "Red Birch goes a step higher, with growing the feed stock. It's a unique way of operating. ... It's an interesting, holistic concept, and we'll be watching it to see if it can be replicated in other areas."�
Red Birch Country Market began selling biodiesel fuel in August, with Red Birch Energy buying products off the market such as animal fats, waste vegetable oil, animal grease and soybean oil, and converting them into biodiesel fuel.
About two weeks ago, Red Birch Energy began crushing canola seeds to create canola oil, which is processed into biodiesel fuel. For this season, 13 farmers grew about 1,200 acres of canola, and 18 farmers are growing about 2,000 acres of canola for next year, Price said. He added that farmers in Virginia (including some in Southside), North Carolina and South Carolina are involved.
During a recent tour of the processing operation, Price showed an 18,000-bushel grain bin, then in the production area, a 250-bushel bin from which canola dumps into crushers that smash the canola into canola oil.
Canola seed is 44 percent oil, Price said. The residue that results will be sold for animal feed.
After the canola oil is created, it is stored until time to further process it into biodiesel fuel. That process involves such things as adding substances to alter the chemical structure and washing glycerin from the mixture so that the fuel will burn in vehicles.
Price said it takes about 2 1/2 days to make biodiesel fuel - the time from crushing through processing.
Red Birch Energy's biodiesel fuel, which is a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent No. 2 diesel, was selling for $2.83 a gallon on Sunday.
Amber Pearson, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board, said biodiesel fuel often costs a few cents a gallon more than diesel fuel, but that may depend on a number of factors.
Pearson said that drivers of 18-wheelers often have told the National Biodiesel Board that biodiesel fuel improves their fuel mileage, but NBB has done no scientific research to back that up. Drivers of 18-wheelers have said they get a half-mile to 1 1/2 miles per gallon more per gallon with biodiesel fuel, which is a significant increase when their vehicles are getting only 6 to 7 miles per gallon.
Price said there are many benefits of biodiesel fuel, but, foremost, he stresses energy independence.
He got the idea for a biodiesel fuel operation three years ago after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The price of diesel fuel jumped at his business from $2.25 to $3.50 in a few days, and his station ran out. "We wanted to be energy independent," he said.
A U.S. biodiesel fuel operation helps reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, should improve vehicle mileage per gallon and causes less pollution, Price said. He said Red Birch Energy is producing a "premium fuel" with improved lubricity. That is the ability of a lubricant to reduce friction between moving parts of a machine, which could mean less maintenance.
The biodiesel fuel industry has much economic potential. "This industry is laden with high-paying, green-collar jobs," he said, some jobs paying perhaps $25 an hour plus.
Red Birch Energy has three employees, not counting its owners; is working six days a week; and is making about 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day, Price said. He added that he hopes the operation will expand to 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the next three to four months, and will increase its production to about 2.5 million gallons a year.
Glenn Rodes of Port Republic, who stopped at Red Birch Energy recently, said he grew about 30 acres of canola for Red Birch. He praised Red Birch's biodiesel concept.
"I think it's a good idea. I think it's an opportunity for farmers to branch out into different crops," he said.
In addition to growing canola for Red Birch, he grew dozens of acres of canola for himself. He used part of it to fuel his farm tractors, using a canola press to process canola oil into biodiesel fuel. He said the fuel mileage was similar to what he got before, but he saved several thousands of dollars from not having to buy the fuel.
Price showed several letters from governmental officials endorsing his operation.