People - October 2005

Entrepreneur strikes oil in restaurants
By Dail Willis

When it comes to being an environmentalist, Brian Winslett walks the walk. Well, not exactly. “I mostly try to ride a bicycle,” says the 29-year-old general director and part owner of Asheville-based Blue Ridge Biofuels Cooperative. When he has to drive, he uses the nonpolluting biodiesel fuel that his company makes from used cooking oil.

In July, Blue Ridge opened the only commercial biodiesel pump in western North Carolina in Asheville. Customers bought about 1,000 gallons each week in the first six weeks. Winslett’s goal is to produce 500,000 gallons a year by the end of 2006. North Carolina is fifth among the 50 states in use of biodiesel, using 5 million gallons in 2004.

Winslett isn’t sure what led him to environmentalism. Born in Austell, Ga., he remembers fishing the Wakulla and Hiawassee rivers with his dad, who worked as a carpenter, floor installer and remodeler, and hearing his father grouse about litter.

He started college at Georgia Tech, dropped out, took a few years off and then enrolled at UNC Asheville. He graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s in chemistry and environmental science. After college, he worked for an Asheville physician developing a fuel cell. Winslett also was active in the Asheville Biodiesel Cooperative, a group of friends making five-gallon batches of fuel. But when 300 people signed up for a biodiesel e-mail list during the annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo in August 2004, he took notice.

By October, he had a grant and enough investors to quit working on the fuel cell and start building a biodiesel plant in a 5,000-square-foot building in Asheville. Blue Ridge has five employees, 100 member-owners and a nine-person board. He won’t disclose his stake, saying only that he is the second-largest investor.

The cooperative sells biodiesel for about $3.15 a gallon, compared with about $2.99 — and rising, as of September — for regular diesel. Customers include Warren Wilson College and UNC Asheville.

Blue Ridge Biofuels gets used cooking oil — most of it free — from 25 restaurants and filters out particles and water. The oil is then heated, and lye and alcohol are added. Every gallon of filtered vegetable oil yields a gallon of biodiesel, and nontoxic glycerin is the only significant byproduct. No engine retrofitting required — not even for Winslett’s 1981 Volkswagen truck. “Forty miles to the gallon.”