Watery WonderOur Future Clear Skies?

Designs on developing South Knoxville's waterfront The ETCFC hopes so Seven Days

There's a thickening haze blanketing the skies in the Knoxville area. It's not unlike L.A.'s smog some days; at least it isn't as bad, not yet. To alleviate this eyesore––and to help keep air-pollution from mucking up nearby Smoky Mountain vistas––some city and county officials are promoting programs to make our area more eco-friendly and are toying with mandatory emission testing, while others are backing a new fuel that may soon become the norm for diesel-guzzling engines.

It's all about transesterification, a complicated name for a complicated process in which natural oils are combined with methanol in the presence of a sodium or potassium hydroxide catalyst, forming a methyl ester. This ester is then blended with conventional diesel fuel to create the clean-burning fuel known simply as "biodiesel."

Biodiesel is quite efficient, according to the Department of Energy's biofuels website, www.eere.energy.gov/biomass . For every unit of fossil energy used to create biodiesel, 3.37 units of biodiesel energy are created. And the positives surrounding this new fuel don't appear to have much of a downside. It is produced with naturally occurring and renewable resources; it's biodegradable; and it releases less CO2 into the atmosphere because it combusts with more oxygen and less carbon, creating a hotter, and therefore cleaner, explosion.

Back in February 2002, the idea of alternative fuels began gaining popularity in East Tennessee, when John Overly helped found the East Tennessee Clean Fuel Coalition (ETCFC), and biodiesel has been a hot topic for about a year now. "We got to help our partners advertise it," Overly says. "We'll never be able to replace all of our diesel use with biodiesel, but even if we get everybody on B5 [a minimal mixture of the methyl ester and diesel], we can improve air-quality and help lessen our dependence on foreign oil."

There are currently five—soon to be six—public biodiesel stations in East Tennessee: Mr. Gas Texaco in Alcoa, Loudon and Newport; Calloway Oil in Maryville; Midnite Oil in Chattanooga; and. scheduled to be in full operation by mid-April, Regal Fuels in Knoxville, 1206 Proctor Street off Middlebrook Pike. In February 2004, there was virtually no biodiesel in Tennessee. Now, the ETCFC estimates that 90,000 gallons of B100—pure biodiesel—have been "transesterified"; that's approximately a half-million gallons of the B20 mixture.

 

On June 3, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area had a tank-full of biodiesel (B20) delivered. On March 19, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received a shipment of B20 to use in two dump trucks. The Sevierville Farmers Co-op and its 2,000 members made the switch to B5 on Jan. 4. But the leading user of biodiesel in East Tennessee is Knoxville Area Transportation.

"We made the switch in late June of last year," says Barry Greenberg, director of maintenance at KAT. "We're on B20, but plans are to get up to a B25 within 30 days.... We just felt that our industry was locked into diesel fuel."

Current projections show KAT using nearly 100,000 gallons of biodiesel in the next six months. That's definitely good news for any driver who ends up behind one of KAT's buses and no longer has to suffer the noxious odor and thick smoke produced by a typical diesel fuel.

Greenberg says the switch to biodiesel has been a little costly, yet he remains an ardent supporter of the new fuel, pointing out the fact that the buses have experienced a slightly increased amount of horsepower and that engines tend to run quieter with biodiesel. All those benefits are prompting KAT to consider using diesel that has been blended with a higher percentage of methyl ester. "There are some issues with the very high numbers," Greenberg notes. "As you approach B100, they can gel or clog at high temperatures. Certain materials have a tendency to go out of mixture, so we have to be careful to avoid clogs."

Slow but steady experimentation is the path KAT and other new users of biodiesel have chosen, as they hope to explore its usefulness one tank at a time. As Greenberg says, "[Biodiesel] is worth it in the long-run if it reduces emissions." With B20, there can be anywhere from a 10- to 20-percent reduction of harmful emissions, which is good news for any East Tennessean with functioning lungs.

The question of whether downtown Knoxville will continue to grow and thrive may hinge on well-planned development of its surrounding neighborhoods. The South Knoxville waterfront, populated sparsely with homes and condos as well as older industrial sites such as Holston Gases and Knoxville Glove Co., holds a lot of potential for mixed-use development in the eyes of the city.

Amy Nolan, spokesperson for Mayor Haslam, says the city wants to develop the area because of, "its proximity to downtown. Waterfronts, in cities across the country, are very attractive places for development."

At a meeting last week of South Knoxville dwellers and various officials, John Fregonese, whose Portland city-planning firm was hired to do a feasibility study on waterfront redevelopment, presented a three-part plan as a tentative design model.

Fregonese referred to the models as small, medium and large options, calling it a "Goldilocks approach," each one simply built upon the last, with the third plan being the ultimate goal. The first and most conservative plan starts out with the attractive option of turning the 500-year flood plain, which cannot be developed commercially or residentially because of building code regulations, into a large riverfront park with landscaping and pedestrian pathways. Fregonese designates two 30-acre plots for retail and residential development, one just east of the Holston tanks, and the other west of Baptist Hospital. Some of that development would line Sevier Avenue, slated to be the "Main Street" of the area. Fregonese says the goal is to "grow it but keep its character." Essential in all this is creating a "spine" by expanding the contiguous Blount and Sevier Avenues, which make up the main artery through the area, to a boulevard with four lanes and on-street parking.

The second option adds an additional million square feet of retail as well as residential space for houses and condos. The final plan ups that number by another half-million square feet of retail, thus completing the infill of Sevier Avenue. Fregonese says of those estimates, "It's too much, but we're just doing estimates right now to determine the area's feasibility. We came to the conclusion that the housing will be easy to do but that a quarter- to half-million square feet of retail is more realistic." The final phase also proposes renovating Fort Dickerson Park, which entails transformation of the old quarry, now a site used only by daring youngsters, into a safe and legal swimming hole.

Some "extras" include a pedestrian bridge off the side of Gay Street Bridge that hangs closer to the water. That, along with direct out-and-back bus routes would promote alternate modes of transportation to and from downtown. Fregonese also suggests looking at the possibility of making South Knoxville Elementary a charter or magnet school to increase residential value for potential homebuyers. Not as popular with the residents is the proposal to build a hotel.

Mayor Haslam, present at the meeting, outlined two goals for South Knoxville's waterfront, saying he wants a "totally open process with no surprises." Also, it must be "feasible and realistic financially." Fregonese's study projects the pricetag on the most conservative plan, including utilities, road, and waterfront costs, to be $8.9 million.

In some ways, the business model mirrors that of the opposite waterfront, which has several successful locally-owned restaurants, some community spaces such as the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the Gateway Center, now inhabited by Beck Cultural Center, and various housing developments. City Councilman Joe Hultquist says of its sister shore, "I think we'd see businesses that would fit the attraction nature of a waterfront, such as restaurants, and, over time, some shops and maybe some office space." Fregonese's plan includes space for condos and mixed-use live-and-work buildings as well.

Hultquist is quick to point out that the planning process is still in its infancy. "We have to make decisions based on a final feasibility study [due out in two weeks]; then we have to decide how to proceed ahead. The purpose of the study was to decide whether or not to allocate substantial city money to developing the waterfront. It looks like, to me, that's exactly what we should do."

Fregonese's study hit a harmonious chord with the area's residents as well. Many present at the meeting expressed approval of the plan and gratitude that it included many of their suggestions. On the other hand, one community member ardently opposed the plan because it would arguably create competition for Chapman Highway businesses. Hultquist rebuts, "I think there's some legitimacy to that concern, but we just have to address that in the planning process. I don't think we're talking about the same market, though."

It's still unclear how the project will be funded, though Fregonese mentions Tax Increment Financing potential. Nolan comments, "the only thing we've done at this point is this feasibility study. It's really too early to talk about the financing of it."

The city and Fregonese are on the same page as far as prioritizing the area's attractiveness to potential developers, and he says the returns on investments need to be around 15 percent to get investors interested. His feasibility study projects that such a goal is viable. "The mayor has said that the city needs to concentrate on growing revenue internally, and he's focused on doing that in the heart of Knoxville," Nolan says.

There's a thickening haze blanketing the skies in the Knoxville area. It's not unlike L.A.'s smog some days; at least it isn't as bad, not yet. To alleviate this eyesore––and to help keep air-pollution from mucking up nearby Smoky Mountain vistas––some city and county officials are promoting programs to make our area more eco-friendly and are toying with mandatory emission testing, while others are backing a new fuel that may soon become the norm for diesel-guzzling engines.

It's all about transesterification, a complicated name for a complicated process in which natural oils are combined with methanol in the presence of a sodium or potassium hydroxide catalyst, forming a methyl ester. This ester is then blended with conventional diesel fuel to create the clean-burning fuel known simply as "biodiesel."

Biodiesel is quite efficient, according to the Department of Energy's biofuels website, www.eere.energy.gov/biomass . For every unit of fossil energy used to create biodiesel, 3.37 units of biodiesel energy are created. And the positives surrounding this new fuel don't appear to have much of a downside. It is produced with naturally occurring and renewable resources; it's biodegradable; and it releases less CO2 into the atmosphere because it combusts with more oxygen and less carbon, creating a hotter, and therefore cleaner, explosion.

Back in February 2002, the idea of alternative fuels began gaining popularity in East Tennessee, when John Overly helped found the East Tennessee Clean Fuel Coalition (ETCFC), and biodiesel has been a hot topic for about a year now. "We got to help our partners advertise it," Overly says. "We'll never be able to replace all of our diesel use with biodiesel, but even if we get everybody on B5 [a minimal mixture of the methyl ester and diesel], we can improve air-quality and help lessen our dependence on foreign oil."

There are currently five—soon to be six—public biodiesel stations in East Tennessee: Mr. Gas Texaco in Alcoa, Loudon and Newport; Calloway Oil in Maryville; Midnite Oil in Chattanooga; and. scheduled to be in full operation by mid-April, Regal Fuels in Knoxville, 1206 Proctor Street off Middlebrook Pike. In February 2004, there was virtually no biodiesel in Tennessee. Now, the ETCFC estimates that 90,000 gallons of B100—pure biodiesel—have been "transesterified"; that's approximately a half-million gallons of the B20 mixture.  "I won't be surprised if we grow that number 10-fold this year," Overly says.

On June 3, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area had a tank-full of biodiesel (B20) delivered. On March 19, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received a shipment of B20 to use in two dump trucks. The Sevierville Farmers Co-op and its 2,000 members made the switch to B5 on Jan. 4. But the leading user of biodiesel in East Tennessee is Knoxville Area Transportation.

"We made the switch in late June of last year," says Barry Greenberg, director of maintenance at KAT. "We're on B20, but plans are to get up to a B25 within 30 days.... We just felt that our industry was locked into diesel fuel."

Current projections show KAT using nearly 100,000 gallons of biodiesel in the next six months. That's definitely good news for any driver who ends up behind one of KAT's buses and no longer has to suffer the noxious odor and thick smoke produced by a typical diesel fuel.

Greenberg says the switch to biodiesel has been a little costly, yet he remains an ardent supporter of the new fuel, pointing out the fact that the buses have experienced a slightly increased amount of horsepower and that engines tend to run quieter with biodiesel. All those benefits are prompting KAT to consider using diesel that has been blended with a higher percentage of methyl ester. "There are some issues with the very high numbers," Greenberg notes. "As you approach B100, they can gel or clog at high temperatures. Certain materials have a tendency to go out of mixture, so we have to be careful to avoid clogs."

Slow but steady experimentation is the path KAT and other new users of biodiesel have chosen, as they hope to explore its usefulness one tank at a time. As Greenberg says, "[Biodiesel] is worth it in the long-run if it reduces emissions." With B20, there can be anywhere from a 10- to 20-percent reduction of harmful emissions, which is good news for any East Tennessean with functioning lungs.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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