Green movement surviving despite economy

Biofuels, organic foods still popular locally

Even with the recent drop in gas prices, Everson resident Paul Davis still doesn’t go to the gas station to fill up his Dodge truck. Instead, Davis makes his own biofuel at home.

Once a week, he collects waste vegetable oil from a few local restaurants and he stores it at home. There, his 100-gallon biofuel processor pumps out enough fuel to run all the cars in the family, plus the tractor.

“You can make fuel with our system wearing a tuxedo,” he said, showing off its push-button simplicity. “I just turn it on in the evening and fill up my truck in the morning.”

Davis was first introduced to biofuels about six years ago. After doing some research, he decided to launch Sweet Home Biofuels and make his own biofuel processors. The company now has four models, capable of making 100, 1,000, 2,000 or 4,000 gallons of fuel, all in under 24 hours.

Most of his customers are interested in the cost savings of making their own fuel — it costs a mere 70 cents per gallon — but some are doing it for the environmental benefit, he said.

“It burns 92 percent cleaner than diesel and lubricates (the engine) 40 percent better,” Davis said.

Despite the environmental and cost benefits of Davis’ biofuel processors, sales are slowing down.

“With the economy the way it is and with fuel prices so low, the personal purchases have slowed down,” Davis said, referring to the 100-gallon residential processor. “But the commercial ones have increased.”

It’s difficult to tell in this foggy economy whether consumers have lost interest in making their own fuel now that gas prices have dropped dramatically, or if the $7,000 price tag is just too much for this year’s budget. Either way, it seems the green movement is slowing down on all fronts.

Seeking the alternative

As consumer spending continues to slide, many in the green industry are worried that demand for eco-friendly products will drop. The fear is that consumers will go back to buying cheaper, mainstream items.

But Davis is not worried about a slight dip in demand. The way he sees it, diesel vehicles have already risen in popularity and the price of fossil fuels isn’t likely to stay low for long.

“It used to be that diesel was cheaper than gasoline. Now there’s so many diesel vehicles on the road that demand for diesel fuel has increased,” he said. “By June it’ll be back to $5 (per gallon) for diesel.”

Though much of the national conversation about alternative fuels is focused on the electric car, Davis isn’t worried about the future of biodiesel. Many of his commercial customers use biodiesel to power fleets of construction equipment, which would prove difficult to run on electricity.

“We can’t get the whole country on biofuel, but we can certainly offset the amount of oil consumption,” Davis said.

So far, the general public has been slow to pick up on biofuel mainly because they know little about it, Davis said. So he spends much of his time explaining the simplicity and benefits of making biofuels.

The same is true for Bellingham native Dana Brandt, who owns Ecotech Energy Systems, a solar panel installation company.

“A very large part of my job over the last four years has been education — telling the public that solar works here,” Brandt said. “As the word has gotten out, demand has grown a lot.”

Many people assume that Western Washington, with its often gloomy and rainy weather, doesn’t get enough sunshine to warrant solar energy. But when examined over the course of a year, Bellingham sees the sun more than you would think.

“You get 4,380 hours of daylight no matter where you are,” Brandt explains. “Here, we’ve got 16-hour days in the summer and 8-hour nights. And then in the winter, it’s the other way around.”

Since starting Ecotech in 2004, Brandt has installed 25 solar energy systems in Whatcom County. Each year keeps getting better, he said, as more people become familiar with the technology. It also helps that the state and federal government offer significant tax breaks if you install solar panels, Brandt said.

But investing in solar energy requires a sizable amount of cash up-front — $25,000 on average. In these lean times, that can be hard for people to justify.

“The economy is bad and people are scared, but people are also more aware than ever of energy consumption in general,” Brandt said. “They are realizing that we don’t really have control of our energy costs.”

Compared to the current energy rates, Brandt estimates that a solar energy system will pay for itself in 10 to 12 years.

“We can generally assume that rates will go up,” he added. “Electricity isn’t getting any cheaper.”

Organic food and clothes

Perhaps the strongest arm of the green movement is the push for organics. What started as a simple revolt against pesticides and excessive fertilizer has spawned a demand for everything from organic carrots to organic cotton dog sweaters.

If polar fleece and chat rooms were the big items of the 1990s, then this decade will be defined by the slew of “eco-friendly” products.

“Organics kind of became en vogue, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Jeff Voltz, general manager of the Community Food Co-op. “And now ‘local’ is in fashion.”

Tim Shea, owner of the downtown natural clothing store The Hempest, agrees: “It’s a lifestyle these days. In this area, people are deciding to live a greener life.”

The common perception with the green movement is that it is a noble cause, but generally more expensive, Shea said. So when it comes to items like clothing or tanning lotion where people don’t see the immediate effect of buying organic, customers are more likely to pull back and spend less.

“Unfortunately, I’ll probably feel the effects before other industries in the green movement,” Shea said. “When people only have $100 in their hands to spend on clothes, they may not think about the environment. It takes a lot of money to convert a whole wardrobe to organic fibers.”

Organic food, though, has carved out a strong enough niche that it is surviving the down economy much better than other organic items. Sales this year have increased, Voltz said, and the co-op is ready to open its second store in Cordata on Jan. 15.

“One of the beauties of the down economy is that people will still eat,” Voltz said. “They may not build a house, but they will eat. Well, maybe people will buy less granola.”

Being part of the movement

As the marketplace has become flooded with new eco-friendly items, the average customer has become more aware and more comfortable with the green movement.

“People are hungry for more information,” Davis said. “People always ask me, ‘Why aren’t people doing more of this?’”

Even with the high initial investment for a 100-gallon residential biofuel processor, Davis said he is seeing much of his demand from the middle class — everyday people with a steady job and a steady commute.

For Davis, this shows that the green movement is gaining ground. It’s shedding the trendy and spendy stigma.

“People want to be hands on — they want to be a part of it,” Davis said. “It used to be that to be part of a movement, you sent a check to Greenpeace. Now you spend that check on equipment and do it yourself.”


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