The Importance of Outreach

Producers know the value of their product—with a little effort so could everyone else
By Luke Geiver | April 21, 2011

Buster Halterman and his team from Buster Biofuels, a biodiesel startup just outside San Diego, truly believe the future is now for the California city’s use of biodiesel. Unfortunately, Halterman, who is founder and CEO of Buster Biofuels, admits that it sure doesn’t feel that way. For the past few years, Halterman has spent more time trying to navigate through permitting paperwork related to tree planting requirements and the number of necessary parking spots at his small production facility, than doing the one thing he started Buster Biofuels for in the first place: producing biodiesel. The brief history of Halterman’s biodiesel endeavors may seem unfortunate―and to the large producers out there, somewhat meaningless―but the truth is, the San Diego producer’s experience provides a definitive reminder that there’s more to biodiesel than feedstock, processing and glycerin coproducts, regardless of installed capacity.

To be a producer today means putting in effort, the kind that includes reaching out to communities and providing the knowledge and education that will help end-users everywhere understand that biodiesel is a proven and positive alternative fuel—one that doesn’t require a NASA-inspired engine.

Educated Decisions

“If I’m building a business, I need to do everything to promote it. If you don’t do that, you are at the mercy of what somebody else might think in communications,” says Greg Paulk, president of Biodiesel of Las Vegas, a production facility that’s been under expansion for years, and plans to resume production in the fall.

Halterman shares the same sentiments as Paulk on the need to constantly inform and clear up misperceptions about biodiesel. “Here we are in San Diego, the hub for algae research, but at the same time, you can’t even get biodiesel at but one gas station in all of San Diego County,” he says. “And, when you talk to people about biodiesel, they think you have to do some expensive conversion on the diesel engine.” Throughout his time working with city and state officials, Halterman says he had to hold meetings with several fire marshals about biodiesel, while exerting a significant amount of time and energy clarifying for other policymakers various aspects of the fuel.

For producers and those familiar with biodiesel, the idea that certain segments of the population are still uninformed and unacquainted with the fuel is not news. Some of the nation’s fuels programs are still devoting time and effort towards biodiesel education, and it’s not just the biodiesel producers trying to promote their product, or the National Biodiesel Board fighting for its members. “We’ve actually been performing biodiesel outreach and education since early 2000,” says Chelsea Jenkins, executive director for Virginia Clean Cities. While the early reasoning for the outreach efforts related more to concerns over home brewers using dangerous chemicals in producing biodiesel, Jenkins says that VCC’s educational topics have changed, but it still sees the need to put forth the effort. “We want to make sure that the misinformation that is out there is countered by facts,” she says.

Programs like Clean Cities are a major help, Paulk says, but that doesn’t mean producers are helpless in the face of misinformation and the lack of understanding, especially at the policy level. “There needs to be more success stories with biodiesel,” he explains, “and that is what we hope to get out through our efforts.” By efforts, he means a cross-country trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional staffers. Sponsored by a San Diego-based group called Connect, Halterman, along with Jason Biddle, co-founder of Buster Biofuels, provided an overview of the company’s brief history, telling the staffers the challenges the Buster Biofuels team have faced along the way. Joining the biodiesel team was Tim Zenk, Sapphire Energy's vice president of corporate affairs, who also spoke to the staffers, educating them of the policy-driven landscape (including all of the peaks and valleys) that both companies have had to travel.

“I thought the response was good,” Halterman says of the trip. “We got to talk with the House and Senate staffers—we got to tell them our story.” The whole idea, he says, “was just to educate these staffers and give them some real-world experience “with which they can apprise the senators, in the hope of influencing future policy steered in the direction of businesses like ours.”

The verdict is still out on the success of the D.C. trip, but recent political activity in Las Vegas shows that outreach efforts aimed at policy makers can pay off. Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, recently introduced a bill to increase the levels of biodiesel used in the state to a B10 level. Why? Because Schneider believes the bill would directly benefit Biodiesel of Las Vegas. “One way to get biodiesel to the public at an affordable price, to get more out there at economies of scale and make us more competitive with petroleum diesel,” Paulk says, is by educational efforts like those by the Nevada producers directed at several state legislators, including Schneider.

While communicating with policy makers is an important part of outreach for producers, Halterman and Paulk say their companies also work hard in other areas they say are equally important. For instance, the Biodiesel of Las Vegas website features a video series produced by four local high school students from previous outreach efforts.

‘Workshopping’ for a Profit

 Bill Shoemaker and Matt Steiman, both with the biodiesel project at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., have developed their outreach in areas other than shaping the political landscape.

Steiman left a small Pennsylvania college in 2007 for another small college in the same state, to start a biodiesel program. Together, they run a program that allows five to 10 students per year to learn about and produce biodiesel. “Our program is a student-driven program,” says Shoemaker. “A fuel gets made because the students make it.” For the program to be maintained, he adds, student interest has to be maintained. Both Steiman and Shoemaker believe in the importance of outreach.

Their philosophy is that to develop a sustainability-minded workforce of tomorrow, there must first be participants. The program holds workshops every spring for the environmental studies students at the college, at which the students are allowed to make small batches of fuel. “From a community perspective,” Shoemaker adds, “we’ll do lunchtime talks trying to get our name out there and draw attention to the program,” all in the hopes of recruiting more students. “We are just trying to get the message out to as many people as possible.”

For programs like the one at Dickinson College, the message centers around a statement and goal of sustainability, and building a program based on those goals. For others, the idea of “getting the message out” to those who don’t represent a county, city or state, may be more about financial growth, both internally and externally.

Piedmont Biofuels, the well-known community-scale producer that has found equilibrium between small and industrial-scale production, offers the perfect example. In March, Piedmont held a workshop explaining its innovative enzymatic process developed in part with Novozymes. “We thought the best way for the industry to learn about the new process and work with the new catalyst would be to offer a workshop,” says Rachel Burton, Piedmont's research director. The educational efforts, she says, “are in our community-scale model.”

Pittsboro, N.C.-based Piedmont has been holding workshops for many years, Burton says, both as a way to educate others on the Piedmont processes, and to provide other community-scale producers with information that will help in forming their own models. “We say, here is all the resources. Your community may be completely different than ours, your model may look different,” she says, “so we just try and provide comprehensive information about the biodiesel industry and let people make their own decisions.”

Like Burton, Halterman also notes the importance of spending time educating, promoting or marketing to a nonpolicy- related audience—if that is even possible. Buster Biofuels, for instance, recently took part in a sustainability campaign funded by a local energy drink maker, Sambazon.
“What we did with Sambazon was more marketing directly,” Halterman says. “But I think that campaign was done specifically by those guys to increase public awareness about companies that are doing meaningful things, and about companies that are trying to make a difference in their own little ways.” This sounds like a good use of resources, considering biodiesel fits well with the idea of sustainability.

There’s no doubt that producers both large and small have a positive product to sell. But with the amount of pervasive misleading sources of information combined with a segment of the population that still doesn’t know the true story of biodiesel, and all of the jobs and environmental, economic and communal benefits that come with it, there is a place in the current biodiesel landscape for educating fire marshals, high school students and Senate staffers. And if efforts aren't made to tell  the right story, Paulk’s sentiment about being at the mercy of other people’s communication efforts will continue to apply. As Halterman explains, “I think in any way, shape or form, all companies need to put a little more effort into outreach.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 738-4944

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