It sounded great. Through the miracle of science we would take food crops, used cooking oils and animal fats that would otherwise be discarded and turn it all into fuel to run our cars and trucks. We’ll even give it a cool name … biofuels! And if we produce enough of this stuff we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It looked like a win-win for everyone. And it may still turn out that way, but not in the present economy and not with available resources.

Corn ethanol (known around these parts as “white lightning”) was the first biofuel to capture the nation’s imagination. We’ve known for years that adding ethanol to gasoline in small doses wouldn’t damage a car’s engine and would help reduce emissions.

So when gasoline prices first blew through the roof in the 1970s, it seemed like a good idea for the government to encourage increased production of corn ethanol, through subsidies of course.

But there’s a problem. Besides diverting land used for growing food for people to growing fuel for cars, thus driving up food costs, there are reasons to believe that producing ethanol results in a net energy loss. David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of agriculture, has long opposed ethanol production.

Pimentel reasons that turning corn into fuel using fossil fuel-powered machinery then shipping it in fossil-fuel powered tanker trucks offsets the ethanol’s benefits.

Biodiesel isn’t even fairing as well as corn ethanol. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, two-thirds of U.S. biodiesel capacity now sits unused. Biodiesel plants are closing, unable to attract investors in a recession and unable to compete with depressed diesel prices.

Piedmont Biofuels, located in Pittsboro’s “Eco-Industrial Park,” is bucking the trend. “The secret is that we keep it local,” says Chief Engineer Leif Forer. “We get used cooking oil from behind local restaurants and turn it into biodiesel fuel that we turn around and sell local. It’s all about scale … small is beautiful.”

So there may be hope for biofuels yet.