Tennessee Steps It Up

Tennessee is not known for growing soybeans, but biodiesel advocates are determined to make the renewable fuel work in the Volunteer State. Relying on alternative feedstocks-or shipping soybean oil in-will likely be part of the plan.
By Gary DiGiuseppe | February 01, 2006
Tennessee, at first glance, wouldn't seem a likely place for dramatic biodiesel industry growth. The Volunteer State is only 16th in U.S. soybean production with an estimated 41.8 million-bushel crop in 2005-just 1.4 percent of total U.S. production. Most adjoining states aren't much higher on the soybean ladder: Missouri is 7th in soybean output, and Arkansas is 10th. Plus, Tennessee doesn't even have a soybean crushing plant within its borders.

Despite these ostensible feedstock deficits, biodiesel has become a hot topic in Tennessee, both for users and would-be producers. A major catalyst for the renewable fuel's newfound allure has been the announcement by Mean Green Biodiesel of Tennessee Inc. (a spin off of Mean Green BioFuels Corp.) to build a 31.7 MMgy plant in Humboldt, a Gibson County town just north of Jackson and about a third of the way between Memphis and Nashville. The plant would be the first of five 20 MMgy to 60 MMgy facilities Mean Green plans to build. Stephen Maupin, COO of Mean Green Biodiesel of Tennessee, says each plant will be sited in the South. Maupin says Mean Green is looking for strategically located sites that have access to good transportation routes, fuels markets and locally available production feedstocks. Simply put, Mean Green wants its biodiesel consumed in the same region where its feedstocks would be produced. "We don't really want to be in California, bringing materials all the way [there] from the Midwest," Maupin says.

Maupin worked as an environmental consultant for 24 years in Arizona before returning home 10 years ago to Dresden, Tenn., about 50 miles from Humboldt, to look after the family farm and his parents. "However," he says, "we couldn't seem to maximize our value-added because we just couldn't do it with a small family farm." Determined to make something work, he and others formed BioEnergy Engineering, a company that designs and builds biorefineries such as biodiesel and ethanol plants-and Mean Green's process technology provider. The company's pilot-scale operation in Dresden removes micronutrients from vegetable oils and animal fats, and sells them to the biochemical and biomedical industries. Biodiesel can be produced from the extracted materials that are left over.

New Jersey's GreenShift Corp., parent company to Mean Green, bought a 30 percent stake in BioEnergy Engineering late last year and will finance the construction of Mean Green's proposed biodiesel plants.

Now, the company's No. 1 priority is acquiring land. Maupin says a five-year tax abatement-and the right to build in Humboldt-are all Mean Green is asking of the Gibson County Industrial Development Board. "We're not chasing grants, and we're not chasing free money from the counties and the states," he says. "We can go to Wall Street. There's plenty of people there that have money and will invest in this new industry. I don't believe that, as capitalists, we should be going to a city or a state, especially here in the South, that already has severe economic problems, and putting our hand out."

Maupin says he'd rather see counties invest their money in public works such as fire protection, law enforcement, public schools and playgrounds. He says other towns in west Tennessee have offered to host their facility, but Mean Green thinks Humboldt has the suburban lifestyle that would appeal to the facility's future employees.

Multi-feedstock plan

Maupin says the plant would not rely exclusively on soybean oil as a feedstock. Three large companies, he says, are "like OPEC" in the way they dominate the U.S. oilseeds industry, and he fears those companies would regulate the price of the vegetable oil used to make biodiesel. "I see that if we use an alternative material animal tallow or fatty acids from waste processes, it would reduce our dependency and make [soybean oil] more competitive," he says.

Parks Wells, executive director of the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board (TSPB), says the multi-feedstock strategy Maupin advocates doesn't bother soybean farmers. "We've always looked at doing things in biodiesel, and we also know that this is one place that we can influence the market more than anywhere else," Wells says.

Mean Green is one of several potential bioenergy investors in Tennessee. "There is a surge of people wanting to get into the business across the Mid-South," Wells explains. "Tennessee is no exception." For example, Wells says Nashville commodities broker Michael Tarr has built a plant in Lewisburg. Plus, there are several unnamed investors in Memphis who want to "get into a 20 million-gallon plant." In fact, Maupin lists Memphis as a potential location for one of Mean Green's own plants.

Wells concedes Tennessee's minor status as a soybean producer and the lack of crushing facilities are a hindrance to biodiesel, but he says his farmer-members aren't deterred by the fact that vegetable oil for biodiesel production will have to be brought in from out of state. He says TSPA has been involved in the effort to support biodiesel since 1992 and spends about $20,000 a year to promote the renewable fuel.

Tennessee's three Clean Fuels Coalitions have further stimulated biodiesel use in the state. TSPA also works with those organizations, which are arranged geographically. The West Tennessee coalition was just recently formed, while the Central and East coalitions have been around for about four years. In December, famed blues singer Bonnie Raitt put on a biodiesel education benefit concert in Knoxville, with proceeds going to the promotional efforts of the TSPB and the East Tennessee coalition. Wells says, "She has two of her buses and at least two trucks that use a B20 blend this year."

Consumption picking up

Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition (ETCFC), says the organization started getting interested in biodiesel a couple years ago. "At the time, there was one gentleman using biodiesel-we're talking one single person in a passenger vehicle," he says about the organization's 33-county region. In contrast, Overly estimates that 2005 biodiesel use in the region was at 500,000 gallons of B100 equivalent.

Overly, who works for the Energy, Environment and Resources Center at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, says when he learned about the Clean Cities organizations, he knew it was something he needed to get involved with. "I said, 'You know, this looks like what I was built to do' because I'd spent about seven years doing life-cycle [analysis] work in advanced fuels in vehicles," he says. Specifically, Overly was interested in the twin "hooks" of improving air quality and reducing dependence on foreign fuels. When other groups like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) signaled their support for the program, Overly told himself, "Jonathan, please, go for it."

The region's biggest biodiesel users are "a fairly small group"-Knoxville Area Transit, Knoxville Utilities Board, Alcoa Inc. and Eastman, Overly says. The federal and state governments are starting to come on board. The Tennessee Department of Transportation will use B20 in Knoxville and Johnson City. Overly says Oak Ridge's Y12 National Security Complex "is looking to be the leader in getting on board with biodiesel, and hopefully ORNL will follow."

There are 16 public stations in eastern Tennessee offering biodiesel, but Overly says public use only makes up 10 percent to 20 percent of consumption in Tennessee. One of ETCFC's goals is to get trucking fleets to use the renewable fuel, and that's been problematic. For one thing, only a couple of the public stations currently offering biodiesel blends can accommodate an 18-wheeler. Then, Overly says, there's a plethora of misinformation to deal with. One local outlet for a national fleet had started using B5 and was pushed by its main office to discontinue it. "We'll tell people your big 'cons'-if you exclude cost-are wintertime gelling and maybe [fuel filter] clogging as you start up. ... But anybody who looks at the long list of 'pros' over 90 percent of the fleets and individuals we've talked to have started using the fuel here."

Johnny Dodson gladly recites that list of "pros." The Dyersburg, Tenn., farmer, a vice-president of the American Soybean Association, says, "There's no reason why not only farmers but consumers in general shouldn't be using it. It's a renewable fuel. It burns cleaner. There's less pollution out the exhaust. It adds lubricity to the fuel."

Dodson practices what he preaches. When he began using biodiesel five years ago, he could only get it in Nashville, 170 miles away. "Whenever I had a meeting or needed to travel to Nashville, I had a mini bulk-tank I'd put in the back of my truck, and I'd bring home a truckload of methyl ester," he says. "You know, I was determined that I was going to use it, and yes, I went to some trouble. After some arm-twisting with some local fuel jobbers here at home, they started handling it in bulk, and so it made life a whole lot easier."

Dodson says west Tennessee farmers are using biodiesel more than ever. "Where they started out at a 2 percent blend, some are going to 5 percent, and some have already gone on up to a 20 percent," he says. On the other hand, "There's a few that, you know, if it costs a penny more per gallon, they wouldn't even think about using it-even though they grow soybeans. So, those are the ones we've still got to work on." Dodson says farmers still raise questions at soybean association meetings, but the groups counter with information based on National Biodiesel Board research, as well as testimonials. "John Deere's blending at the factory. Chrysler, in their new Liberty vehicle, is blending at the factory. So, those instances in some respects reassure folks that this is not something that's going to do damage to your engine."

What the American Soybean Association can add to the process, he says, is its political clout. The farm group was instrumental in getting the $1-per-gallon excise tax exemption for biodiesel blenders through Congress; the next goal would be to get the tax break extended past the current sunset of 2008. It doesn't hurt, of course, to have the Senate Majority Leader from your home state. "Sen. [Bill] Frist has been supportive of biodiesel," Dodson says. "He's been to a couple of meetings here in the state where he's talked about supporting biodiesel."

Overly says the ETCFC wants to see a statewide requirement that all diesel be blended at B2. "It's probably a long way off before that happens, but we need to start the dialogue and have legislators discussing it now, so that maybe in a couple of years we actually implement something like that," he says.

In the meantime, The EFCFC will stick with its short-term goals-doubling biodiesel use this year in its 33-county region to 1 million gallons, and having biodiesel used by a substantial fleet in every county in east Tennessee by the end of 2006. Tennessee, overly vows, is doing its best to put "biodiesel at the forefront."

Gary DiGiuseppe is an Arkansas-based freelance writer. He has authored several articles for Biodiesel Magazine, including "First Impressions" in the January issue.
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