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Sustainable fuel
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About three years ago, Monroe resident Rick Huszagh became frustrated with the amount of money he was pouring in to buying diesel for his farm equipment and the lack of control he had over the prices that he paid for fuel. As a hay farmer, he spent a lot of time on tractors, which burned a lot of diesel.

"I got tired of having no control over my future," said Huszagh.

Using fossil fuels also wasn't a very sustainable practice in the bigger picture - something that was important to him and his wife.

So they began looking into biodiesel, first with a small batch in a blender, then larger 30-gallon quantities.

It was a learning process along the way. Huszagh described how his first large scale attempt clogged the boiler with 30-gallons of a gloppy, yogurt-like substance, which had to be cleaned out. But eventually, he was able to make enough of his own biodiesel out of waste chicken oil disposed from poultry plants to run his tractor and cars.

Now, Huszagh is expanding his biodiesel-making capabilities and investing in equipment that will allow him to become a small scale producer, making up to 1 million gallons a year.

While Georgia still lags in initiatives and leadership towards energy independence compared to other states in the country, entrepreneurs and small businesses like Huszagh are taking up the slack and leading the way.

For some, it's a matter of living sustainably and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For others, it's a simple matter of dollars and cents.

In Newton County, Alan Morris, owner of A&M Heating and Air, is currently looking at making his own biodiesel as well, especially as rising fuelprices hit his wallet.

He recently contacted Oxford College Chemistry Instructor Brenda Harmon about using the biodiesel produced by her organic chemistry students after reading an article in the News profiling the project. Harmon donated what remained at the end of the semester - about 10 gallons - which Morris used in his work van.

"It worked out great," said the small business owner. "The engine seems like it runs smoother, quieter. And it gets same mileage. I'd like to get some more."

But even before reading the article, he said he had wanted to try making biodiesel for himself.
At $4.50 a gallon, he said he typically burns about $150 worth of diesel a week in his van. And the prices keep rising. Crude oil hit a record high of $126 a barrel Monday, and retail diesel rose to a national average of $4.36 a gallon Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.

A handful of places in Georgia offer biodiesel and ethanol blends at the pump ready for consumers, but unfortunately none in Newton County or the surrounding counties do so.

Gas station owner Nayef Abuaisheh recently decided to start offering E85 blend ethanol since April at the Safa Express BP in Lawrenceville when he realized the potential demand for retail ethanol blend.

A customer, who was also an engineer that converted stations to E85, informed him that there were very few places in the metro-Atlanta area where E85 was available, but that many cars sold today were flex-fuel vehicles capable of using high ethanol blends.

"It's been wonderful. Far better than we expected," he said, of the response.

He's even planning on adding another ethanol pump, and holding a special promotion June 2 selling the E85 at $1.85 for a few hours starting 11 a.m.

For retail biodiesel, B20 blend - or diesel that's about 20 percent biodiesel - was running at $4.41 a gallon at the S.A. White Oil Co. in Marrietta, compared to $4.37 for regular diesel. In Rome, it was $4.35 a gallon for both at the Enterprise Oil, Co.

The price of biodiesel has been keeping pace with regular diesel, said Huszagh, because the commodities that used to make biodiesel, such as soybeans, canola and sunflowers, have been increasing in price as well.

Some of that is because of farmers' decisions to plant less of those commodities and more corn for that other biofuel - corn-based ethanol, Huszagh said.

But what's really driving prices is not the biofuels industry, which is still too small to directly affect the economy, but rather the expectations and activity of speculators on the commodities market, he said. Speculators know there is a tremendous push in many countries across the world for cleaner fuels and are driving up the price of the materials going into those fuels, such as corn, which is affecting a number of other things, including the price of food.

In fact, he estimates about 75 percent of the biodiesel he and other small and large plants make is shipped overseas to Europe, where the demand and fuel mandates push the prices even higher.

"The whole biofuels thing has to be done very carefully," said Dr. Judith Curry, a professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology. "It's a mixed bag, frankly."

As long as the raw materials that are used for making biofuels are waste products or materials that would not be used for food or feedstock, biofuels can be carbon neutral and benefit society, explained Devon Dartnell, biomass program manager for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

One of the most promising biofuels is cellusosic ethanol, or ethanol produced from plant materials with cellulose, like wood, through either a fermentation process or a thermo-chemical gasification process.

Georgia, with its acres of forest - approximately 70 percent of the state is forested, according to Dartnell - is a prime candidate for such an industry.

One of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants is being built by a company called Range Fuels in Soperton, Ga. Slated to begin producing in 2009, the plant will make about 100 million gallons a year, Dartnell estimates.

"The wood they're going to use is harvesting residues and un-merchandisable timber," he explained. "When they cut a tree down, they don't use the top, they don't use the limbs, they don't necessarily use the bark."

For biodiesel, other promising but still experimental raw material sources include algae, which has a fat content of around 50 percent, lives year round, and grows on light, carbon dioxide and brackish water.

Scientists at the University of Georgia have produced a non-edible variety of peanut that maximizes fat content and could potentially produce 123 gallons of biodiesel per acre, compared to 50 gallons per acre produced by soybeans, the most popular biodiesel crop.

While fuels have been produced from both materials in small batches, the problems lie in converting production to a larger, commercial scale.

Even with the challenges, Huszagh is optimistic.
"We're in an infant industry right now," he said. "It's going to work itself out."

Part of the reason he's so optimistic is the interest and excitement he sees in younger people when talking about sustainability. That's one of the reasons he and his wife helped start an educational non-profit organization called the Down to Earth Foundation, which seeks to use the farm, biodiesel plant and surrounding land to provide hands-on educational field trips and projects for students.

"It's a process of internalizing the experience and internalizing it for themselves," said Programming Director TG Pelham.

"You can't leave it to chance," said co-founder Crista Carrell. "There's a very short window of opportunity."


Useful websites:

To find retail biodiesel locations:
To find retail E85 locations: