In 2006, Austin had more biodiesel pumps than any other U.S. city, a distinction that owed much to Jeff Plowman, who co-founded Austin Biofuels in 2003 with mechanical engineer Kurt Lyell and diesel mechanic (and beer brewer) Robby Plenge. Plowman had discovered biodiesel almost by accident in 1999, while handcrafting soap for his previous business, Herbal Soapworks. Batches would sometimes go wrong, leaving a watery layer of oil that was essentially biodiesel. Plowman tried the home-brewed fuel in his diesel van – it worked, and before long, he was building Austin’s biodiesel market from scratch, as Austin Biofuels. The company opened Texas’ first public biodiesel pump in 2003 and by 2006 had built an estimated customer base of 200 customers, with sales of 20,000 gallons a month. The heyday, however, was short-lived.
In January, Austin Biofuels ended its direct-sales operations, and Plowman switched his focus to consulting. He cites many reasons, among them insufficient access to capital and credit, as well as what he and others in the business consider an arcane and overreaching regulatory stance toward popular biodiesel blends by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Austin Biofuels isn’t the only supplier closing out; the sinking price of petroleum diesel has made it less cost effective for gas stations to provide the more eco-friendly variation. The result is that today, with the exception of official city of Austin sources for fleet vehicles, biodiesel has been reduced to a solitary retail source (Eco-Wise at 110 W. Elizabeth), and it’s not clear when that situation will improve. However, changes are in progress in the local industry, with the expectation that they will ready the ground for a revival.
Early this year, Austin Biofuels sold its pumps and equipment to Jason Burroughs of DieselGreen Fuels, Austin’s first commercial purveyor of waste vegetable oil and Austin Biofuels’ former competitor. Not long thereafter, Plowman was appointed the executive director of the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance. And last month, Plowman and Burroughs – the two biggest players in Austin’s biodiesel game – got together to make a deal. Plowman transferred ownership of a big blue tanker truck to Burroughs, and in doing so, the man who helped put Austin at the forefront of the national biodiesel market effectively handed over the keys to Austin’s day-to-day biodiesel business to the next generation.
Now in the retail driver’s seat, Burroughs is intent on building a profitable business using local resources to produce biodiesel for Austinites. In the meantime, as head of the SBA, Plowman will widen his focus to broader issues, such as biodiesel’s impact on global food supplies and climate change. And in bringing the SBA to his hometown, he’ll be once more establishing Austin as a center of innovation for the biodiesel industry.