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Pittsboro man sells sustainability

Lyle Estill created the Piedmont Biofuels Project, which includes the largest biodiesel co-op in the country.

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PITTSBORO, N.C. — It's only 10:30 a.m., but the temperature is approaching 95 degrees at a small farm in Pittsboro. A shirtless man wipes the sweat from his forehead as he picks peppers. A woman in a floppy hat fills a basket of peppers a couple of rows away.

Humidity tints the air on this final morning of July, but Lyle Estill is standing in the sun, sipping from a cup of coffee.

"This place is powered by passion," he says. "It really is the big motivator of everyone on project."

"Project" is his word for everything that falls under the Piedmont Biofuels umbrella. Estill is the president of the organization, which includes the largest biodiesel cooperative in the United States. Thirty to 40 people are working on any given day at three sites in Chatham County, tending to sustainable farms, producing biodiesel fuel and trying to spread the word about being environmentally sustainable.

"Sustainability, for me, involves putting as much in the pot (of energy) as you take out of the pot," Estill says. "If you take more out of the pot than you're putting in, you're unsustainable."

He walks between the buildings at the Piedmont Biofuels Industrial site, pointing out some of the ways they try to reach sustainability. Piedmont uses waste oils to produce about 100,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel every month. Estill says local buyers in Chatham County buy about 10 percent of the fuel. Oil companies buy the rest and blend it with regular petroleum diesel.

Farm operations at the coop and industrial site produce enough food for coop members to eat comfortably. The company also does a profitable business selling high-quality organic food to local restaurants. The Pittsboro site also houses a worm bed and hydroponics greenhouse. The goal is to have few inputs and reuse as many outputs as possible.

"It's about doing more with less," Estill said.

How does he know when he has reached sustainability?

"We haven't," Estill said. "We're still trying. We are working passionately year in and year out on the quest, and we're not there yet. How do you know when you've reached it? When you see that the pot of energy is growing."

Estill says he approaches the issue from a personal scale. He talks about sustainability by making everyday decisions and "chasing down" your energy consumption.

"We are conservation nuts," he said. "When you start making fuel, it becomes very obvious to you how precious this stuff is and how you can't just waste it on unnecessary trips to the mall."

Estill is eager to spread the word about sustainability. He has written a book called "Small is Possible: Life in the Local Economy." He says the path to sustainability runs through a smaller, more local economy.

"What would it take to feed ourselves, fuel ourselves, finance ourselves?" he asks.

Estill believes society currently is ringing up tremendous cost as it consumes natural resources. He calls the sustainability effort a prescription for others.

"There is no time to wait," he said. "We have to get this done."

But would it work for all of society? Some economists say sustainability is a nice goal, but probably not practical.

"Modern economies are built around trade. People specialize," said Dr. Mike Walden, an economist at N.C. State University in Raleigh. "it's oftentimes cheaper, more efficient for certain areas of the country, for certain businesses to specialize in producing those things en masse, and we access them from wherever we live and trade occurs."

Walden insists that some people get a "personal, psychic benefit" from their changes to reach sustainability, which he says is a good thing.

"That's one thing we like about this country," he said. "People are free to pursue whatever their lifestyle is, but in terms of taking that and saying everyone has to follow that, or even a majority of people, is probably not practical."

But Estill says he is an optimist, and he believes change is coming.

"'Homo hydrocarbonous' is coming to an end," he said. "We're going to need to figure out another way of being as a species."


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