Refinery reflects industry’s highs and lows

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Former President George W. Bush toured Virginia Biodiesel’s refinery in West Point in 2005, providing a shot in the arm for the company and the renewable-energy industry.

“It was a huge boost getting that kind of national exposure,” recalls Dennis Sulick, the general manager of Virginia Biodiesel, which makes products largely from soybeans. The company had record sales the next year. “Other companies called to thank us. The word ‘biodiesel’ had suddenly become part of people’s vocabulary,” Sulick says.

But recognition goes only so far. Like the rest of the industry, Virginia Biodiesel faces uncertain global commodity markets. Last year, the company flourished when crude oil prices were high but struggled when prices suddenly dipped. Soybean prices, Sulick explains, dropped as well but not as quickly. As a result, soybean-based biodiesel became more expensive than traditional fuel.
“All this wild fluctuation in prices has made it very difficult to try to guess where the market is going,” Sulick says. When economics dictate, the company uses chicken fat instead of soybeans as a source material for biodiesel. That happened last year when chicken fat was half the price of soybeans. The refinery also is equipped to use other biofuel sources, including canola oil and recycled vegetable oil.

Virginia Biodiesel, which opened in 2004, can make up to 10 million gallons of biofuel a year, though it currently is not near capacity. The company sells to fuel distributors that in turn supply gas stations, truck stops, school districts (for school buses) and home-heating companies. Virginia Biodiesel’s employment varies with demand, but up to 16 employees have worked at the refinery.

The privately owned company declines to release its financial numbers. Nonetheless, the refinery already has expanded three times and has plans to add more capacity if demand dictates, Sulick says.
Although their first five years in business have not been smooth, Virginia Biodiesel officials say they are committed to the industry and expect to achieve profitable, consistent growth

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