In The Unwinding, George Packer looks at the lives of a handful of people as a way of exemplifying the evolution (or in some cases, devolution) of American politics, economics, and culture. One of these people, Dean Price, came from a long line of poor tobacco farmers in North Carolina. As a young man, he was eager to escape his father’s cruelty and, after graduating from college in 1989, he worked for eight months as a pharmaceutical rep, thinking that he would be living the American dream. The only problem was that he hated it. “He’d gotten out of his father’s house only to find another kind of servitude. He decided to start over and do things his own way. He would become an entrepreneur.” He moved back to his hometown and started a business – a convenience store, fast-food restaurant called Bojangles’, and a gas station all in the same location. In order to stay competitive with the larger companies, he slyly decided to lowball the price of gas by a few cents and introduce “discount gasoline” to the Southeast. He called his business Red Birch Country Market. “Instead of pumping a hundred thousand gallons a month and making fifteen cents a gallon, he would pump two hundred fifty thousand gallons and make five cents a gallon.” His businesses saw a lot of growth and change over the years, but nothing changed it more than when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Diesel spiked from $2.25 to $3.50 per gallon. “Independents like him were accused of price gouging, but they were only protecting what little fuel they had – if they kept the price low, they’d run out in a matter of hours. It took 2 months for the region to emerge from the crisis.” All at once, Dean realized that something had to change. “Katrina almost put Dean out of business, and it drove him to realize that he had to do something different to survive. He had to make his truck stops energy independent – that would be his competitive advantage over all the other truck stops up and down 220.” Dean was frustrated that the government allowed the US to become dependent on foreign oil, and he finally understood that the concept of “peak oil” (where the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached and supplies dwindle then on)” was a scary and inevitable truth. So he and investors looked into something he had once heard of called “biodiesel.” As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, “Biodiesel is a form of diesel fuel manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled restaurant greases. It is safe, biodegradable, and produces less air pollutants than petroleum-based diesel.” It is a renewable and clean-burning alternative to regular diesel that can be produced domestically from non-petroleum resources. With the exception of nitrogen oxides, it produces fewer air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions than regular diesel, and it is non-toxic, which makes it safer to handle. (“It is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar.”) Domestic production also creates more jobs and reduces the United States’s dependence on foreign oil. This was exactly what Dean was looking for. By 2007, Dean and two other investors – Gary Sink and Rocky Carter – successfully created a closed loop system from farm to pump, and by 2008, they opened: Red Birch Energy: America’s 1st Biodiesel Truck Stop (According to the Red Birch Energy website, Dean Price is no longer associated with the company). For every $1.00 spent at Red Birch Energy, $.90 stayed in town. This was the dawning of something big.   According to the DOE, here’s how biodiesel works: “…Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification whereby the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products – methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a valuable byproduct usually sold to be used in soaps and other products.)”   With the right equipment, the glycerin can be washed off leaving behind biodiesel, which is then blended with other products to make it suitable for using in vehicles. Though this may be stating the obvious, the DOE gives a firm warning not to put old vegetable oil directly into gas tanks. (“Raw vegetable oil cannot meet biodiesel fuel specifications, it is not registered with the EPA, and it is not a legal motor fuel.”) Though feedstocks such as soybeans and canola seeds are often the source of biodiesel, the diversity of materials used “has grown significantly in recent years…In fact, industry demand for less expensive, reliable sources of fats and oils is stimulating promising research on next-generation feedstocks such as algae and camelina.” (Camelina is a flowering plant in the same family as mustard.)   As this field continues to develop, researchers are trying to figure out a way to make biodiesel less expensive for consumers and to increase its fuel economy and power – two reasons why it isn’t more popular. The fundamental problem with most sources of biodiesel today are that crops that could be used to feed people are being grown to make fuel, thus raising food prices worldwide. It is also questionable whether the energy output from these fuel crops is greater than the amount of energy needed to grow them – many are only profitable at the moment due to subsidies. This is why research into algae is a particularly promising area as it could lead to the production of substantial quantities of biodiesel without using up the limited resources of farmland and water required to grow crops.   In the meantime, people like Dean Price are working hard to bring biodiesel into more and more communities. Co-partnered with a man named Stephan Caldwell, Dean’s new company, Green Circle, created a program called Biodiesel 4 Schools. Marketing their idea as a fundraiser – a concept with which schools are familiar – they now work with Pitt County Schools and dozens of restaurants to save the school district money, create a stronger sense of community, keep the air cleaner, and reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

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