Virginia businesses turn to a variety of energy sources

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By Garry Kranz

Running an environmentally friendly business sometimes is a function of serendipity rather than planning.  Warrenton Toyota-Scion is one of a small but growing number of Virginia companies installing geothermal energy systems. But that decision wasn’t in President Jeff Abel’s original blueprint.

Abel knew a little about geothermal systems before his company broke ground for a new 37,000-square-foot, two-story dealership in February.  “Our contractor is moving in this direction and asked if we wanted to do it,” recalls Abel.  So, he decided to give geothermal a try.  Besides reducing fossil-fuel consumption, geothermal energy promises more efficient cooling for the dealership’s data center and other areas. Plus, it eliminates above-ground condensers, which frees up space for parking.

Miller Construction Inc. is installing a “ground loop exchange system” made by Rehau. The North American headquarters for the German company is located in nearby Leesburg.

The geothermal process is simple in its elegance.  Heat is extracted from below ground in winter by circulating fluid through a series of buried pipes. Rehau’s system uses water (other systems use antifreeze). A compressor and heat exchanger — similar to those used in refrigerators — raise the water temperature to a sufficient level for indoor heating.

When the weather warms, the process is reversed. Heated water is returned to earth to cool below ground, where temperatures remain around 58 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. “It dramatically reduces the amount of carbon emissions because you burn less fossil fuel than with an outdoor heat pump,” says Mike Maher, who oversees Rehau’s
commercial unit in Leesburg. Energy savings potentially could be as much as 70 percent, he adds.

For other alternative energy companies, renewable sources are key in reducing their carbon footprint.  This month Synergy Biofuels LLC will begin refining used cooking oil at its retrofitted plant in Lee County. Capacity will be small at first, with 3 million gallons expected during the first year, says CEO Ankit Patel.

Yet, within 24 months, Synergy could produce as much as 10 million gallons of the vegetable-oil-based fuel. Once purified of contaminants, it could be formulated into commercially available B20 — an alchemy that mixes 80 percent of petroleum-based diesel with 20 percent of “biodiesel,” or modified fuel that produces fewer toxic emissions.

B20 is safer for the environment because it burns longer but cleaner than regular diesel. Synergy is trying to line up suppliers that purchase used oil in bulk from restaurants and hospitality companies. “We can get a huge supply of used cooking oil” within a 300-mile radius of Lee County, says Patel.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, Reco Biodiesel is brewing biodiesel from two feed stocks: soybean oil and poultry fat. Since starting operations last year, company President Mike Schleinkofer says Reco has been selling its reformulated B20 mostly to large industrial customers including Dominion Resources, Virginia’s largest electricity utility.

Reco converted part of an old warehouse for its 165,000-square-foot refinery, which is capable of manufacturing 8 million gallons of biodiesel a year. However, with speculators driving up commodities prices for soybeans — which doubled recently from 25 cents to 50 cents per pound — it’s getting more expensive to buy the necessary feed stock.  At those rates, notes Schleinkofer,  it’s challenging to produce biodiesel at a cost better than that of petroleum.

For its part, Richmond-based Dominion is striving to increase its portfolio of renewable generation.  “We have wind projects under construction or in development capable of powering about 115,000 homes and are pursuing other renewable generation projects,” says Dominion spokesman Chet Wade.

Alternative and renewable energy sources are in vogue, but their future in Virginia appears to be a mixed bag. In November, the Chesapeake City Council rejected a bid to build a massive ethanol-prthe Elizabeth River.  The following month in Hopewell, the City Council voted 4-3 to approve a 55-million-gallon ethanol plant proposed by Osage Bio Energy LLC.  The $160 million plant would reportedly create 50 new jobs and generate tax revenues of $2.2 million.  Yet, the development has been mired in controversy. Curtis W. Harris, a longtime council member unhappy with the site’s downtown location, filed an appeal to an earlier court decision that allowed the sale of the land for the project. Last month, the Virginia Supreme Court declined to hear Harris’ petition for appeal. 

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