Triangle companies leading the way to sustainability

kblunt@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2013 

  • Resources

    •  Green Plus, gogreenplus.org: Certification program that works with small businesses to increase their operations sustainability.

    •  N.C. Green Power, ncgreenpower.org: Offers incentives for businesses interested in installing solar panels or decreasing carbon footprints.

    •  N.C. Solar Center, ncsc.ncsu.edu: A public service center at N.C. State University that provides information and education about the state’s policies on clean energy and helps develop green initiatives.

    •  U.S. Department of Energy, energy.gov: Database of federal and state green energy incentives.

    •  Raleigh Office of Sustainability, raleighnc.gov: Provides information on clean tech industry incentives.

Grease is in the eye of the beholder.

To most, it’s the humble byproduct of the American way of cooking. But to Dean Price, it’s a potent antidote for some of the country’s most intractable ailments, including climate change, foreign oil dependence and the economic downturn.

Price’s company, Green Circle North Carolina in Garner, recycles used cooking oil by collecting it from restaurants, processing it into feedstock and then selling it to local companies that produce biodiesel, an alternative energy source made from renewable materials such as vegetable oil.

“(Used cooking oil) can help create a new economic paradigm, one that is more local and more sustainable,” said Price, Green Circle’s principal. “We can’t create new resources, but we can add value to the ones we have.”

Green Circle is one of many area businesses that strive to create a niche by promoting the health of the planet and its population by using sustainable resources. The green movement is gathering considerable speed, and many companies are jumping on board for moral reasons.

“The Triangle’s green business climate has become very robust in the last five years,” said Chris Carmody, executive director of Green Plus, a certification program for small business in North Carolina. “At the grass-roots level, consumers and small businesses alike inherently want to do the right thing, so they go to great lengths to run operations that support the health of the community in the long term.”

“Green” businesses include those that prioritize the energy efficiency of their daily operations, as well as companies that provide green and clean goods and services.

Much of the movement is powered by businesses, nonprofits and other programs, including Green Plus’ certification program, which helps small businesses across the state examine their business models and determine how they can save money and generate new revenue by decreasing their waste and energy consumption.

“On the environmental side, we help businesses look at their energy, water, purchasing and transportation policies,” Carmody said. “On the economic side, avoiding waste helps employers keep their prices competitive and stabilizes their ability to employ people. It also helps businesses connect with each other for new needs they discover. In encouraging community engagement, they start to think about their role in volunteerism and supporting their communities.”

Local initiatives take root

Raleigh has invested heavily in projects that involve renewable energy, including encouraging the use of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

According to James Sauls, director of economic development in Raleigh, the city’s green business landscape started to widen considerably nearly four years ago when it began actively engaging in clean tech, which encompasses renewable energy and transportation technologies.

Raleigh has begun to develop the infrastructure necessary to support clean tech developments. A $3.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the 2009 stimulus package helped fund Raleigh’s efforts to install solar panels on city buildings, implement energy-efficient technology and build hybrid vehicle charging stations around the city.

Since then, clean tech companies have invested more that $700 billion in capital and created 2,600 new jobs in the Research Triangle region.

“The clean industries we support make Raleigh attractive to other green business,” Sauls said. “Raleigh has its own sustainability mantra. We’re doing and living what we’re preaching, and Raleigh being a leader in sustainability gives businesses a lot of opportunity here.”

Other Triangle cities have similar goals. Durham is installing hybrid-vehicle charging stations, and several of its public parking facilities use energy efficient lighting. In Chapel Hill, town buildings constructed after 2005 were built using sustainable business practices.

In North Carolina, most state government subsidies and tax rebates are awarded to businesses that promote energy efficiency rather than businesses that provide green products or services.

It wasn’t always that way. In 2007, then-governor Bev Purdue established the North Carolina Green Business Fund to promote sustainable businesses. The fund, administered by the N.C. Department of Science and Technology, was also supported by the $3.8 million stimulus package grant. The N.C. Department of Commerce used the money to award three rounds of grants to green businesses across the state, but the fund was exhausted in 2011. The legislature hasn’t yet reallocated money for the fund.

Sustaining the movement

Green Circle’s Price strives to make the state more self-sufficient by promoting biodiesel – a biodegradable fuel source – as a local energy source that’s cleaner, cheaper and more sustainable than traditional diesel fuel.

Most diesel engines require no modification to run on pure biodiesel or biodiesel blended with petroleum, making it a viable option for many industrial vehicles.

In 2011, Price joined forces with Stephan Caldwell, Green Circle’s CEO. He was intrigued by the idea of strengthening the local economy with locally produced fuel.

“When I first heard about biodiesel, I was borrowing my dad’s diesel pickup,” Caldwell said. “I learned all about its efficiencies. Finding out there was a nontoxic fuel that could be made domestically that burns much cleaner made me ask, ‘Why isn’t this being done on a larger scale?’”

As part of its green efforts, Green Circle established “Biodiesel 4 Schools,” a program that donates a portion of its profits to school systems that use biodiesel for their school busses. Since July 2012, Green Circle has donated nearly $14,000 to the Pitt County school system, said Caldwell. The company recently struck a similar deal with the Johnston County school system.

Eventually, Caldwell and Price hope to foster a series of closed-loop energy systems that begin and end with farmers who grow canola to produce both feed for their animals and biodiesel for their farm equipment and other local entities.

“This is a blueprint for a system that could work in any county in North Carolina,” Price said. “We need to create new industries around our existing resources.”

Blunt: 919-829-8985

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