I sometimes wonder if twelve years in biodiesel is more like running a river in a canoe, or going through the stages of grief.
At the 2014 Collective Biodiesel Conference, Bob Armantrout introduced the crowd to the six stages of grief associated with small scale biodiesel production. I thought it was clever. And exceptional. Bob has a lot of experience in both commercial and backyard biodiesel. I only have my experience at Piedmont.
But because my son, Arlo, and I have recently returned from a white water canoe trip on the Riviere Noire in Quebec, and because we have awesome photos taken by Dorian Tsai, I thought I would try another analogy. Bob might be right, but I have Dorian’s photographs — and I thought I would try to superimpose my river trip onto his ideas. Right now Bob and I are writing a book together, so consider this a “warm up.”
Bob has Stage One as “Love at First Sight.” And I agree. When people first encounter the notion of driving around on fuel made from waste vegetable oil, their imaginations ignite. It’s kinda like “Day One” on a canoe trip. Your gear is dry, your body is strong, you are well rested and well fed, and the river is downright inviting.
Stage Two is the “Honeymoon,” according to Bob. This is when you are evangelical. Bragging, even. This is when you think, “I’m in an open canoe, happily paddling down this river. Look at me. Life is good.”
Stage Three is “Nest Building.” That’s when you get into a diesel vehicle, acquire equipment, and start collecting grease. This is the stage when you get “free” of the petroleum grid. This is when you pitch your tent on a sandy beach and cook dinner on a campfire beneath the stars.
“Maturity” is the word Bob uses for Stage Four. This is when you learn to clean up spills, and deal with cold weather, and inconvenience. This is when you learn that making your own fuel is challenging.
In “canoe” terms there are “swifts,” and rapids on the river. The rapids are classed from one to five. Open canoes loaded with hundreds of pounds of gear can only handle Class Three rapids. Others need to be portaged around. Once you have shot rapids, swifts are just fun.
There are rapids in maturity. You hit rocks, the boat spins, you take on water, and your gear gets soaked. The river becomes a heartless mistress.
Bob has deemed Stage Five “Disillusionment.” In biodiesel terms this includes the fires, and grease wars, and inability to make any money. In canoe trip terms this is when your boat swamps, or gets pinned to a rock. This is when you are bug bitten, sunburnt, and your shoulders burn from portaging with a heavy canoe. After a few days of sleeping on a bag of wet clothes, on the hard ground, your body aches, and you don’t know why you are on this forsaken river in the first place.
Stage 6 is “Divestment.” For Bob this is an advertisement on Craig’s List. You shed your gear, and perhaps your biodiesel car, and you walk away from the whole ordeal.
Piedmont routinely benefits from others going through this divestment stage. We are often called upon to pick up abandoned feedstocks or great walls of glycerin co-products. We sometimes walk away with fittings, or static mixers, or tanks that are shed during the divestment stage. If you can stay standing long enough, a blue bird occasionally comes your way.
This is where the canoe trip analogy departs from the Stages of Grief.
After days on the river, your skills have increased. You can handle larger rapids. You can steer around rocks. You can avoid standing waves that might fill your boat with water. And you can artfully dodge “holes” in the river that can overturn your canoe.
Arlo and I began our canoe trip as the inexperienced boat in the lot. By the end of our trip we had developed excellent communication between the bow and the stern, and we had shot a Class Three rapid, fully loaded with wet gear. We were routinely leading our companions through unknown fast flowing waters.
Instead of divesting, we were jazzed. Bruised, battered, soaked, and exhausted we were invigorated and ready to do it again.
2014 is not a very good year to be in the biodiesel business. Our production credit lapsed, and the petroleum interests are winning on Capitol Hill. The Renewable Fuel Standard, which fuels the RINS market, is under assault, and it’s just not a pretty time to be a commercial producer.
Piedmont has traveled through all of the stages Bob outlined, except divestment. We’ve had accidents and spills and fires, we’ve made money and lost money in this business. But instead of divesting, we are ready to take our skills and paddle out onto the next river.
Lyle Estill is the author of numerous articles, essays, and blog entries, including the book, Biodiesel Power; the Passion, People and Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel. Around town he is less known for his speeches and contributions to energy policy than he is for his full head of hair.