December 6-13, 2006

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Energy Alternative Solutions founders Richard Gillis and Vinicio Vides with Salvador Muqoz of S. Muqoz & Associates

Fuel house: (Left to right) Energy Alternative Solutions founders Richard Gillis and Vinicio Vides stand with Salvador Muqoz of S. Muqoz & Associates in celebration of their shiny new biofuel plant.

Facing an Inconvenient Truth

The first biofuel plant on the Central Coast opens its doors

By Laura Mattingly

'How many here have seen An Inconvenient Truth?" asked Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley into the microphone. "OK, a few. Well, the long and short of the movie ... goes like this. The planet is dying, we are killing it, it has to do with CO² emissions, and everything we have to know to save the planet we know today."

South on Highway 1 down to Castroville, east through rolling hills and farmland, and across the train tracks of Gonzales, the first commercial biofuel plant on the Central Coast opened its doors last Friday. Two hundred people, including sponsors, prospective clients, local and regional politicians, friends and neighbors, gathered on the bright, cold morning inside the warehouse-style building, listening to a panel of speakers talk about a topic no less serious than saving the world.

"We don't have to invent one new thing in order to save the planet," insists Keeley. "What we need to do is to take those things that will save the planet and do them. Now, that sounds OK. But the time frame's a little dark. ... There seems to be an emerging consensus that unless we do those things necessary ... and they really take effect within the next 10 years, we may get to the point where it literally doesn't matter what we do, the changes in global climate will be so significant, they'll be irreversible. ... It seems to me, we can't gamble that all that science is wrong."

The Gonzales plant developer, Energy Alternative Solutions Inc. (EASI), aims to do its part for world change beginning on a community level, and the Gonzales plant is the first of nine or 10 that the company plans to open in California.

The plants are being constructed by Pacific Biodiesel, located in Maui, Hawaii, which built the first commercially viable biodiesal plant in the United States 12 years ago.

"Our business model is one that's community-oriented," Richard Gillis, president and CEO of EASI, tells Metro Santa Cruz. "So we're not building hundred-million-gallon plants, or 50 million gallon plants, we're building two, three and five million gallon plants that are community related, so that the energy itself can be used within the community. And the community could be several counties, or it could be a county, or it could be a city, for that matter, or a group of farmers in proximity to each other--as long as they get to use the end product to help control the air pollution and keep things under control, as far as air quality goes."

The plant will use local resources, employ local labor and sell to local diesel users.

Biofuel is produced from vegetable oil, either virgin or recycled from restaurants. Biofuel and biodiesel blends can power diesel-powered vehicles including cars, trucks, boats and RVs, which makes them valuable for trucking companies, transit systems, school districts, construction companies, farmers and fishing fleets.

Gillis feels most strongly about increasing the use of biofuel to address the cause of many respiratory ailments suffered by Californians in relation to diesel-powered vehicles.

"There are some 50,000 children in this state every year that end up with some form of asthmatic problem because of the levels of particulate matter in the air, and we want to try to reduce that," says Gillis. "We've seen some studies that indicate there are some youngsters who are actually losing lung capacity to that particulate matter, and that's not good. So that's the first reason we think that biofuel is extremely important."

Further motivation for pushing biofuel arose for Gillis following 9/11, in relation to the high quantity of foreign fuel consumed in the state and in the country.

"We use 4.4 billion gallons of diesel, all fuel, in California every year which represents about 10 percent, or a little less than 10 percent, of the total national usage, and that's foreign oil. And we spend 475,000 dollars a minute--I'll say that again--a minute, on foreign oil. Just imagine what that money could do for health care and education and all sorts of things here in the States if we didn't have to buy as much. And finally we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil as much as possible."

Environmental policy expert and associate professor at UCSC Brent Haddad supports the use of biofuel as one step of many needed to improve the nation's energy dilemma.

"Biofuel is one piece of our nation's crucial project to attain energy independence using sustainable energy sources. While biofuels by themselves can't replace the oil we now use to run our cars, they are part of a suite of innovations in transportation that moves us in the right direction."

According to Gillis, the plant is currently run with electric power, but within about six months will switch over to solar, making it officially a "green plant."

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