Red Birch Energy achieves independence

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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina punished oil refineries on the Gulf Coast, giving Dean Price a painful lesson about the precarious condition of the nation’s fuel supply. “Within three days, my truck stops had run out of fuel. I couldn’t get more, and the price had spiked by $2 a gallon,” says Price, the owner of Red Birch Country Market Truck Stop in Bassett and two other Virginia locations. “It made me understand in a way I never had before just how dependent we were — not only as a business but as a country — on foreign oil. I decided then to make my truck stops energy independent.”

Last summer, Price made good on his goal. After contracting with local farmers to grow canola beans and building a $1 million biodiesel refinery, his new enterprise, Red Birch Energy Inc., began selling biodiesel fuel. He’s now selling 10,000 to 12,000 gallons a day.

With that, Red Birch Energy succeeded in creating the first closed-loop biofuel delivery system in the country. “We grow it, we make it, we sell it, all in one community,” Price explains. His product currently is made up of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent No. 2 diesel, but he expects to eventually offer a 99 percent biofuel blend. “We have essentially integrated vertically. We’ve taken all the middle men out of it, so the vast majority of the money stays in Virginia.”

The Red Birch model provides a number of benefits besides biofuel. Canola is a winter crop and doesn’t compete with traditional crops like corn or soybeans. A major byproduct, canola meal, is a healthy alternative to corn and soybean meal as a food for livestock. Farmers, who are paid $9 a bushel for canola versus less than $4 a bushel for corn, can use biodiesel to run their farm machinery and trucks.
Red Birch is installing a burner that will enable it to convert glycerin, another byproduct of processed canola oil, into electricity that will power the Bassett truck stop. “We’ll be completely off the grid,” says Price.

He plans to sell franchises based on his model throughout the Southeast. Price already has talked with several counties and expects to sign contracts to begin building biodiesel refineries this spring. “We’re advocates of small-scale, locally owned, farmer-supplied biorefineries,” he says. “We’ve shown that it can be done. Once people realize how simple this is, they’ll want to replicate it.”

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