Broken Branches Never Looked So Valuable

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Broken Branches Never Looked So Valuable

Hoover, Ala. and Gulf Coast Energy have teamed up to create renewable fuel from, of all things, wood scraps.

Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos announced the city is teaming up with Gulf Coast Energy, Inc. to convert the city’s wood scraps into usable renewable fuel. If successful, this Alabama partnership will put a new spin on “trash to treasure.”

The Livingston-based company boasts the motto “‘to change the world’ through the manufacturing of alternative, renewable fuels.” And rightfully so. Gulf Coast Energy’s demonstration plant will be the first in the country to produce wood-based ethanol through the gasification of wood waste.

And Hoover will be the first city to run off its ethanol.

“We hope within the next six to eight weeks to fill the first tank of our patrol cars with ethanol from wood waste generated from the city of Hoover,” says Mayor Petelos. If there are not any major storm or weather disasters, Hoover, on average, accumulates 1800 tons of woods scraps annually. That’s enough to yield approximately 350,000 gallons of renewable fuel. Each truck load of wood can be converted into roughly 5,000 gallons.

Gulf Coast Energy President Mark Warnersays there is enough wood waste throughout the state of Alabama to fuel every vehicle and still have extra. “The point is,” he says, “this is a huge, huge resource.” It’s a feedstock resource that’s not only renewable but one that does not take acreage away from food crops to produce. Because there is enough sawdust, broken branches, and timber-industry waste products available, wood-based ethanol is essentially even more sustainable than switch grass. Eco-friendly supporters can argue all day about the pros and cons of using corn-derived ethanol but it’s difficult to deny the promising benefits of wood-scrap based fuel.

The biomass gasification process the company will use is over 500 percent more energy efficient then petroleum manufacturing and corn fermentation, Warner explains. Because there are no designated emissions vents, the ethanol-producing process is very low polluting. Aside from environmentally-friendly qualities, the ethanol will save money.

Hoover currently disposes its wood scraps at a landfill because recycling prices skyrocketed. The city will save on high landfill costs and by replacing its current use of corn-based ethanol with wood-based. Although it’s difficult to predict the impact at the pump, Gulf Coast Energy estimates production costs of the ethanol to be less than a dollar a gallon. At a time when 30 bucks barely tips the needle past half full, any price under $4 sounds promising. Perhaps even better than cheap gas: the fuel will be produced locally, reducing dependence on foreign oil.

“The best aspect of the money that we are spending is that it stays in the general economy,” says Mayor Petelos. “When we buy our ethanol [from Gulf Coast] the money is not even leaving the state of Alabama.”

Warner couldn’t agree more. “Every gallon that we make is a gallon that we don’t have to make from petroleum, or corn for that matter,” he says. “If we are producing the domestic feedstock locally, producing the ethanol locally, and consuming it locally, [money] stays local.” The company anticipates its full-scale model will be completed by the end of 2009 and plans to build at least 10 more plants in five years across the nation’s southeast.

Hoover is also being proactive . In 2005 the city purchased a fleet of Tahoe police cars that run on ethanol, making it the nation’s largest alternative-fuel operated fleet at the time. Last year, Hoover started collecting used cooking oil from local restaurants and bought a plant to convert it into fuel. To date, the city has produced over 17,000 gallons at roughly .74 per gallon. Within weeks, the city will purchase the wood chip-produced fuel back from the plant to run its fleet, 183 of which operate on ethanol and 160 on biodiesel. The mayor hopes by the end of this year 90 percent of the city’s entire fleet will operate on alternative fuels created from wood waste and used cooking oil. “If that happens, then we have totally eliminated the need for foreign oil for vehicles in Hoover,” says the Mayor. An unprecedented feet that is sure keep city workers glowing with shades of red, white, and blue.

“I don’t think Americans’ need for fuel is going to go away soon,” Warner says, “so we need to find better ways. We need to be energy dependent. We need to be renewable. And we need to be sustainable.” The United States needs to step up to the challenge. On the company website, he asks readers, “Are you ready for the change?”
We join the company in saying, “We are.”

By Kathryn Kondracki for Next American City.

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