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By DAMON LAWRENCE
Kevin Wright had dreams of turning used vegetable oil into biodiesel.
The changing economy has turned Wright’s dream into a financial horror story.
With gas prices dropping nationwide, the demand for the alternative fuel has fallen as well.
Wright is closing of his biodiesel plant on Gallaher Road
“I’m pretty much devastated at this point,” he said.
“We’re not going to be able to compete against oil prices at such a low volume, so we ended up having to say that’s going to have to be the end of it,” Wright said.
The shuttering of Wright’s company, Blue Sky Biodiesel, won’t wreck the local economy. He had just three employees including himself, but the demise of the business has left him financially and emotionally scarred.
“I’m just kind of down in the dumps right now,” Wright said. “I tapped into my savings in order to make this work.”
Wright said his business wasn’t just about profit.
Wright said he felt like he was on the front lines of the much-touted fight to energy independence, whipping up batches of biodiesel for use in diesel engines.
“None of us are rich,” he said. “We were all just people with ideas trying to get things done.”
Wright said he was the principal financier of Blue Sky, with around $250,000 invested in the venture. Old buckets, hoses, large tanks and other containers are some of the parts used in Blue Sky’s biodiesel-making process.
Selling the equipment to compensate for some of the losses doesn’t appear to be much of an option.
Wright said his most important pieces of equipment were leased, and some of the pieces he’ll be able to keep aren’t of great value.
“I can take some of my equipment, but there’s no chance at all I’ll be able to recoup even close to what I’ve lost,” he said.
Gas was selling for as low as $1.74 a gallon in Kingston on Thursday.
That was good news for drivers, but bad news for entrepreneurs like Wright.
“It’s killing the biodiesel industry,” he said.
Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, said low prices at the pump have taken attention off the need for biofuels and made it difficult for the people who produce those forms of energy.
“There’s no question,” Overly said. “The lower the price goes, the harder it’s going to be for those alternatives to sell.”
The issue is also making headlines nationally.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” recently, Tom Brokaw asked oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens about the lack of urgency for alternative energy now that oil prices have dropped.
Pickens, a big advocate for developing alternative forms of energy, said the low fuel prices aren’t going to last.
“If you think oil is going to stay down at $50 and $60 (a barrel), I’ll make you a $10 bet on that that we’ll be back to $100 in a year from now,” Pickens said.
The oil market can be volatile.
For example, as Hurricane Ike stormed through the Gulf Coast in September, gas prices in Roane County shot up to more than $4 a gallon.
“Next time it might be a fight in Sudan or OPEC deciding they want to do something,” Wright said. “What we were trying to do was produce an alternative fuel locally, maintain a local supply and distribute it locally at a low cost.”