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Hippie love for alternative fuel goes mainstream

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Jonathan Brown, one of the owners of OM Fuels, will be opening Charleston's first biodiesel pump on Montague Avenue near Interstate 26 in September
  • Jonathan Brown, one of the owners of OM Fuels, will be opening Charleston's first biodiesel pump on Montague Avenue near Interstate 26 in September

A few weeks ago, General Motors came to Charleston to give the state a Chevrolet Avalanche designed to run on E85, a gas hybrid that includes 85 percent ethanol. Hopefully the thing was gassed up, because it'd take three-quarters of a tank to find a gas pump with the special fuel.

The alternative energy revolution motivated by private industry in the Midlands and the Upstate has largely ignored the Lowcountry. But a few state and local initiatives planned for this fall could finally bring salvation to those hoping for cleaner alternatives at the pump.

On Sept. 6, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's ThinkTEC will be co-hosting an Alternative Energy Summit at SCRA spotlighting the new industry and developing projects in the Charleston area. The chamber developed the summit after realizing the interest in the business community for new ideas in transportation, says summit coordinator Kristin Badger.

"I realized how many entrepreneurs were working on their own things and I wanted to bring them together," she says.

Though South Carolina seems to be a golden boy for biofuel — there's at least 35 public gas stations in the state that serve E85 as opposed to Florida's one — the Charleston area has been uniquely void of the burgeoning industry.

Though Badger noted that E85 should soon be available at area pumps, promotion of the alternative fuel has struggled to find its footing. A lot of drivers that could use the alternative fuel don't realize their car will run on it. There are about six million E85 compatible vehicles on the roads today, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition. These vehicles can switch between standard fuel or the ethanol blend.

General Motors alone touts more than 2 million vehicles on the road that can use the fuel and it's standard for many 2006 and 2007 models. For older models between 2000 and 2005, the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition has a list of compatible cars on its website, www.e85fuel.com. Dodge, Mercedes Benz, and Nissan also have models available.

Jonathan Brown, who will be a panel member in one of the chamber's discussion groups, is expected to open the region's first biodiesel pump in September on Montague Avenue near Interstate 26 with his three partners in OM Fuels.

"I'm looking to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and to reduce the emissions that come out of my tailpipe," he says.

The pump will likely be self-service through your standard credit or check card and placed at 3005 West Montague Ave. Though cost hasn't been determined, Brown says it will be priced to sell.

"We're trying to be very price sensitive to try to get people to try this stuff," he says.

Unlike E85, which can only be used in certain vehicles, biodiesel can work in any diesel-powered vehicle with no required modifications.

Because it can be made from a variety of oils found around the home, including peanut oil and vegetable oil, biodiesel can be made in the backyard. But Brown says it's not practical to think that people have the time, energy, or resources to do it.

"All we're trying to do is get the stuff to the people," he says.

You do have to change your fuel filter more often and a full tank won't get you quite as far, but it's heaven compared to the wear and tear that traditional diesel fuel doles out on your engine. Brown offers education forums on biodiesel at Earth Fare on the third Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m.

Brown also hopes to work with local governments to encourage them to apply for grant applications that will spur the use of biodiesel in government vehicles.

"There's been nobody to bring the governments together to raise awareness and go after grant money," he says.

Last year, York Technical College received $25,000 toward an ethanol fueling station for local government fleets with the assistance of Palmetto State Clean Fuels Coalition, a public-private partnership that includes nine counties in the upstate and midlands. There's potential to expand the coalition to the Lowcountry or start a separate program here, Brown says.

Charleston County is ahead of the curve, requesting $495,000 through a one-time grant program by the state's Budget and Control Board for the purchase and installation of biodiesel tanks and infrastructure along with a few hybrid vehicles. The county would likely invest the money itself, but part of the funding was also expected to offset the cost difference in filling trucks up with the biodiesel, says Linda Slater, the county's project officer.

"I do see us going ahead and doing it as it becomes more economical to use it," Slater says. "If it's readily available, it's not more expensive."

Brown also notes costly delivery has likely been a deterrent in getting biodiesel to the Lowcountry masses, but Southeast Biodiesel, a Charlotte-based company, is hoping to change that with a North Charleston biodiesel manufacturing facility the company will open in October. The facility will produce about 6 million gallons of biodiesel when it's fully operational using used vegetable oil or poultry fat.

The company is already seeing interest in the area from trucking companies and state agencies and hopes to expand the business to include maritime industries, says president Jim Thompson.

"Some have been polite listeners and they're finally starting to get it, and others have already been on board and are ready to fill up," he says.

The North Charleston facility will be the first of six plants the company is planning, Thompson says. South Carolina incentives approved earlier this year, including a 20 cents per gallon tax credit to biofuel producers, has got the company contemplating relocating a planned North Carolina facility south of the border.

The only stipulation for the incentive is that production begins no earlier than 2007, putting Southeast Biodiesel's Charleston plant in the predicament of doing the right thing too soon. Thompson says he's still hopeful the company will qualify for the tax credit.

"It's still a work in progress," he says on defining the legislation. "You'll get a lot of different opinions on that."

Other federal and state incentives are also targeted at distributors, hoping to increase interest in not just producing the biofuel, but also getting it to the pump.

Brown says the more businesses sitting at the biofuel table, the better.

"The only thing we care about is getting the stuff to the people," he says. "If Exxon comes in and squashes us, we won. We just want to prove the market is here for the stuff."

OM Fuels can be found at www.omfuels.com.

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