Going For The Green

Georgia has a thriving community of “eco-preneurs” striving for commercial success while they work to protect the environment. They’re promoting alternative fuels, organic beer and more.

Rob Del Bueno’s used Mercedes hugs the Atlanta streets, blows fast food fumes from its tailpipe. Del Bueno is on a twofold mission. He aims to save the environment and, he hopes, carve himself a greasy little niche in the alternative fuels industry.

“If it was strictly about money, there are a heck of a lot better things to do than compete with big oil,” says Del Bueno who, as the owner of Vegenergy, converts diesel vehicles to run on recycled cooking oil. In his vision of the future, an order at the drive-in window would go something like this: “Give me an order of fries and a full tank of schmaltz with that burger.”

Del Bueno also sells commercially manufactured biodiesel, which is vegetable oil or animal tallow that has been chemically altered to fuel diesel engines, which were originally designed more than 100 years ago with veggie oil in mind.

“This isn’t a new concept at all,” says Del Bueno, drawn -more by biodiesel’s environmental benefits than the French fry smell. Using biodiesel significantly reduces harmful greenhouse gas and particulate-matter emissions. It virtually eliminates emissions of sulfur oxides and sulfates, the major components of acid rain.

Del Bueno and a growing community of busy Georgia “eco-preneurs” are striving for commercial success while embracing principles, policies and practices that can solve environmental and social problems – in other words, living according to the green business creed.

Georgia is part of a national marketplace worth $227 billion according to LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), an organization that tracks green business trends. LOHAS estimates 30 percent of U.S. adults (63 million people) purchase goods and services that emphasize health, the environment, social justice, personal development and sustainable living. It’s a marketplace projected to reach $1 trillion annually by 2020.

Alternative Fuel

Del Bueno, known to his many fans as “Coco,” bass player for the presently defunct Atlanta band Man Or Astroman, makes a living running his Zero Return Studios, a name that fairly describes Vegenergy.

“I wouldn’t call it much of a business yet,” he says. “I’m basically selling fuel at cost. But this is where my interest really lies. Hopefully we’ll get to where we can open a small-scale production operation and filling station. The point now is to keep getting the word out.”

Del Bueno got the word himself a few years ago, when he met a band from California touring in a van powered by straight veggie oil (SVO, as opposed to traditional biodiesel, the chemically-altered stuff that can be used in any diesel engine). “I was completely blown away, it changed my way of thinking,” says Del Bueno, who now performs conversions so diesel vehicles can run on SVO (for about $750 to $2,000). Basically, it involves installing a second fuel system (tank, hoses, etc.). The car’s engine uses diesel or biodiesel from one tank for ignition, and when the SVO (ideally acquired from a nearby restaurant for pennies) has been heated sufficiently, the driver flips over to deep fryer power.

Del Bueno also sells traditional biodiesel (BD) from 55-gallon drums. He used to make his own fuel but now, through a middleman, he gets his stash from U.S. Biofuels in Rome. That company evolved from Hopkins Chemical, a family firm serving the textile and paper industries. As textile mills began disappearing, company president Greg Hopkins looked for other ways to grow the business as his children neared adulthood.

“My son [Keith] was interested in alternative fuels, so we did our research,” Hopkins says. First they focused on ethanol, finally settling on biodiesel because it required less manufacturing space, and the main ingredients are poultry fat or soybean oil.

Hopkins ships most of his fuel to the West Coast but the local Floyd County school system fills its buses with his biodiesel. And he expects business to take off because of the new national energy law, which is expected to expand the use of biodiesel thanks to a 7.5-billion gallon renewable fuels standard and extension of a federal excise tax credit.

Hopkins’ company has been making about 2 million gallons a year. It’s outgrown the original facility and he plans to invest about $3 million in a new place, which should be up and running by 2006. Hopkins figures he’ll make about 10 million gallons a year at first, but will be capable of making up to 30 million a year eventually.

“This isn’t the answer for the environment or our dependency on foreign oil,” Hopkins says. “But it’s part of the answer.”

Building Green

Forrest Lott has a green-sounding name, a good thing because he directs the Savannah architectural and design firm, Lott + Barber, which is making a mark in Southeast Georgia with its sustainable, holistic – green – building designs.

A few years ago the firm made industry noise with its design of the eco-friendly Mary Kahrs Warnell Forest Resource Center in Effingham County. The facility was built with Georgia timber from a local supplier, and designed to maximize connections to the surrounding forest, making extensive use of natural lighting (i.e., the sun).

But the firm’s next masterpiece could be the Lakeview Village project, a mixed-use commercial/residential project billed as one of the first of its kind in the Southeast. “When we introduced this concept to the developer client (Foram Group), the more we explained it, the more they said, ?Why not?'” Lott says.

The firm is using space-age design technology, the same software being used for the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site. Lakeview, located on a portion of the tract once targeted for Daimler-Chrysler near I-16 in Pooler, will feature a 3.7-acre open-air commercial center (markets, restaurants, etc.). The residential component is a 23-acre multi-family neighborhood with 400 one- to three-bedroom units, a 12-acre lake, boat docks, trails, a pool and rec center, gardens, barbecue pits.

There will also be renewable energy, resource reuse, and water efficient landscaping – strategically placed plants and soil acting as a filtration system, returning as much water as possible to the ground. “I think of it as a high-tech use of natural solutions,” Lott says. “We’ve realized that it’s time for more sophisticated solutions.”

Food For The Soul

Good beer is the indirect link between an urban eco-village five miles from downtown Atlanta with a free-trade coffee company in Southwest Georgia.

North of Atlanta, at 5 Seasons Brewing, where brewmaster Glen Sprouse will soon introduce the Southeast’s first organic beer, co-owner and chef Dave Larkworthy is bringing the various pieces together to create a rare dining experience.Larkworthy works with more than a dozen local farms to bring the freshest organic produce into the mix. It’s something he’s passionate about. “If you’re a sentient person it’s tough to ignore where your food comes from and what’s wrong with mass-produced food,” says Larkworthy, who opened 5 Seasons with his partner Dennis Lange five years ago.

One of Larkworthy’s produce suppliers is Gaia Gardens at East Lake Commons, the Atlanta eco-village where he and gardener Daniel Parson have a neat, sustainable arrangement. The spent grain from Sprouse’s brewing labors gets trucked to Gaia Gardens, where it is used for compost. Larkworthy gets local, organic produce for his menu.

Soon, Larkworthy says, they also will be able to sip after-dinner coffee supplied by Cafe Campesino, an Americus company built around the concepts of fair trade and organic coffee.

Fair trade proponents want to make consumers aware of whose sweat and toil went into the products they use, to foster an equitable, sustainable system of trade that benefits growers who often must accept below market prices from conventional corporations for organic green coffee. Cafe Campesino’s founder, Bill Harris, also started Cooperative Coffees six years ago, bringing together a collection of 17 American and Canadian companies who pay a fair price to growers in Central America, Africa and Asia.

In turn these companies sell their clientele organic coffee with a conscience. “Besides providing great coffee, we’re connecting consumers with producers all over the world,” says Tripp Pomeroy, Cafe Campesino’s general manager.

Cafe Campesino imports green coffee to its roasting facility (an old quonset hut warehouse serves as headquarters, roasting and packing facility). Last year the company shipped 50,000 pounds of roasted coffee from Americus. Soon, it’ll be shipping to 5 Seasons Brewing in Atlanta, where brewmaster Sprouse, whose beers are considered some of the best in the country, can cop a caffeine buzz while crafting the formula for the organic beer he is introducing this fall.

But first, there’s Central America. Pomeroy, Harris and about 40 other co-op members spent the Labor Day weekend on a mountain in Guatemala, where 33 families, ex-combatants in a civil war, are cultivating coffee for the rest of the world.

“We have a vested interest in our partner producers,” Pomeroy says. “We’re taking a good, hard look at how we treat other people. And what’s cool is, this is a business model that works. [Cooperative Coffees] is transparent, a voluntary market mechanism, a win-win approach. We’re not competing for business.

“The goal is to expand the pie. These are people committed to running a profitable business, fulfilling a social obligation. It’s business by the golden rule.”

Categories: Environment, Features