A Biodiesel Family Affair

The Renwicks of South Carolina, owners of Winnsboro-based Midlands Biofuels, persevere through the biodiesel industry's instability with ingenuity, passion and teamwork. This is their story.
By Ron Kotrba | July 17, 2014

What do an emergency room medical doctor, gardening and a community-scale biodiesel plant have in common? The answer is “Bio” Beth Renwick, majority owner of Midlands Biofuels in Winnsboro, S.C. With production capacity less than 1 MMgy, big things are always happening at this small biodiesel processing facility in the Southeast. When the business started in 2008, Beth’s role was simply an investor—an investor in her husband “Bio” Joe Renwick’s 50/50 joint venture with former co-owner Brandon Spence.

“After Brandon and Joe parted ways in February 2013, we had many conversations and looked outwardly for other partners, investors and loans,” Beth says. “After the split, I assumed the role that Brandon’s wife, Becky, had performed—billing, invoicing, payroll, tax filings and anything that needed doing. As the inner workings of the business became clear, Joe and I were able to brainstorm together about all aspects of the company. Sometimes what you’re looking for is right in front of you. Fifty-one percent ownership was decided upon, and we are looking forward to the opportunities a woman-owned business may bring.”

The couple met in Charlotte, N.C., in 2003, thanks to an introduction from a mutual friend with whom Joe attended The Citadel. “We caught up again in 2004 and were engaged in seven months,” Beth says. “We were married six months later [October 2005] in Charleston, S.C., my hometown, under live oak trees on the banks of the Ashley River beside The Citadel.”

“After meeting briefly in Charlotte, a year passed and I happened to run into her at a local bar, which is now one of our accounts,” recalls Joe. “As soon as I recognized her, I walked up and I asked for her number. She said, ‘You don’t waste any time, do you?’ I replied, ‘I lost you once and I am not going to lose you again.’  Seven months later I asked for her hand and soon after we were married.”

When they met, Joe owned a landscaping business and Beth was on her way to becoming a medical doctor. She received her medical education at University of South Carolina School of Medicine, followed by a three-year emergency medicine residency at the Medical College of Georgia. Since July 2008, Beth has been practicing in the ER at Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, S.C.

In 2006, Joe began home-brewing biodiesel in their garage for his own use, after meeting Mat Davis, a resident with Beth at MCG, who first showed him how to make biodiesel. “Within 30 minutes of leaving his house, I was buying pipe fittings and valves,” Joe says. He built his own dual-reactor processor with stand pipes and wash/dry tanks in addition to waste vegetable oil (WVO) processing tanks in the garage. “At first, I was cautious about a heated chemical reaction occurring in the homestead,” Beth says, “but I became a fan after we noticed the performance benefits in Joe’s truck.”

One year and 10 50-gallon batches later, Joe showed former Citadel football teammate Spence his set-up, and within a few months they had secured $20,000 in angel funding and were off. “We started purchasing equipment, using credit cards and any money we could put together,” Joe says. “I even took a loan against my paid-off ‘03 Chevy diesel that started all this craziness in the first place. Less than six months later, we secured a small business loan using a massive amount of process equipment we were able to find, and Dr. Beth’s signature as well. She cosigned this and backed every loan we have ever had—just one benefit of marrying a doctor. Four months from then, we built the plant much as it is today and started ‘Making Fuel Baby!’” 

Process Improvements

Joe says after Spence left the company, and he became 100 percent owner (before Beth’s majority ownership came about), “the flood gates opened with plant and process improvements, and new business strategies to survive this market.” He installed an AgSolutions Boiler, which he acquired secondhand from a local biodiesel plant that went bankrupt years before. “This allowed us to eliminate 100 percent of our natural gas use and gave us an outlet for waste oils and off-spec fuel to be used to heat the plant,” he says. Over the years, Midlands Biofuels accrued thousands of gallons of bad oil, so the company hasn’t paid to heat its plant in more than 14 months since installing the boiler because it can use the off-spec oil. It also generates tax credits for alternative fuels being used as boiler fuel, equating to about 83 cents per gallon. 

One of the most important improvements made at the plant includes the purchase of a rotary screw air compressor. “We operated our plant on a traditional-style compressor for four years. I always wanted a rotary screw air compressor. I heard it would help the process,” he says. “This provides us with dry air, and plenty of it. We can now run multiple processes at the same time, wide open.”

Midlands Biofuels also installed eight new process tanks; new pumps with higher flow rates and lower power consumption; dry-washing to eliminate wastewater while increasing yields and throughput; a new vacuum pump to increase methanol recovery efficiency and reduce operating temperatures; a methanol recovery heating system upgrade to reach 230 degrees Fahrenheit, and new filtration systems to increase oil processing throughput. Midlands Biofuels started hauling WVO wastewater for 13 biodiesel plants and waste oil processors. Joe also designed a new process to refine the waste stream, to capture more value from the waste oil and glycerin processes. “We spent thousands of dollars on testing to refine our process and validate our new changes and techniques for reactions, methanol recovery, biodiesel purification and, most importantly, proving operating without water-washing could be done without process modifications while increasing biodiesel quality and stability,” he says. “Due to my sensitive nose for a deal, only $30,000 total was spent making these upgrades. Yields are up and our costs are lower than ever.”

The plant continues to break its own records in batch and methanol recovery yields, reaction times, total volume produced in 30 days and, most importantly, fuel quality. “In May, our secondary waste process set a record processing close to 1 million pounds of plant waste,” Joe says. “In April, we set a feedstock processing record and supplied more than 232,500 pounds of 10 to 15 percent free fatty acid (FFA) WVO to another biodiesel plant that can run higher FFA than us. We have grown collections to more than 500 accounts—250 since Beth and I took over, which is close to a 100 percent increase.”

Community Involvement, Distribution

Joe says Midlands Biofuels’ community efforts are made each day as it increases the size of the Southern Fried Fuel Program, which established drop-off zones where residents can dump their used fryer oil, and servicing the existing 100-plus accounts in this program across South Carolina. “We helped found South Carolina’s first biodiesel fuel program with the city of Columbia to fuel garbage, fire, dump and service trucks, and other diesels that service the capital city.” Essentially, the fuel is made from the waste of the citizens of Columbia, Joe says.

Midlands Biofuels actively works with schools and colleges such as USC, Clemson, Denison and The Citadel, to name a few. The company has trained more than 50 interns over the six years it has been in business and renamed its biodiesel education program “Bio4EDU.”  Most recently, four local high school graduates were hired to work in South Carolina’s first “Green Summer” program. They will get more than 700 hours of training in the biodiesel industry over the next six weeks. The company also helped start the biodiesel program at USC and assisted in the acquisition of a mobile processor to demonstrate biodiesel production at schools and events around the state.

Midlands Biofuels sells biodiesel blends to the city of Columbia, B5 and B20, as well as B5 to USC. “We also sell a lot directly from the plant, either B40 or B99,” Joe says. “We feel that B40 gives the best blend for performance and emissions reductions. ‘If you can’t smell biodiesel in your exhaust, you don’t have enough in it!’” he says. “Unfortunately, most of our fuel is blended to B5 or less and no mention of this is made at the pump because they are not required to display blended values if it’s 5 percent or less. I have never been a fan of this, but that’s the way it is.”

Like many biodiesel companies in the Southeast, Midlands Biofuels sells its fuel less than rack price diesel. “But distributors are going to charge as much as they can, and keep all the profit for themselves,” Joe says. “It’s an inconvenience for them to make a second trip to get biodiesel and blend it. This takes time and is an extra step for them. Due to this, we get beat down to 40 to 50 cents off rack prices to sell our fuel to distributors.” With no support from local, state or federal governments to reinstate subsidies, this may be the trend going forward. “It is like I am working at the forefront of a forgotten industry while listening to people talk about the need for finding a solution to the U.S.’s petroleum addiction,” he says. “The solution has been found, tested and proven to work, yet somehow we struggle to find someone willing to pay a price that is high enough to allow us to keep producing. There is very little money to be made in this industry without getting creative and finding new processing techniques and markets for biodiesel use.”

After 9/11, national security was obviously front-and-center in U.S. policy, and energy independence through support of domestic fuels such as biodiesel played a critical role. “The bottom line is, people just don’t care as much now because they aren’t scared anymore, thus the government isn’t supporting our industry anymore,” he says. “But let fuel prices get to above $5 a gallon again, or have another tragic event happen, and then people come out of the woodwork supporting us. The scariest thing for me is that when the oil spill in the Gulf was happening, we saw very little surge in this industry. This begs the question, ‘Just how big an environmental or national security situation do we need to make people care again and demand alternative fuels?’” 

Bringing It Home

The most stressful aspect of running Midlands Biofuels together is finding the time to disengage from work and enjoy the nonbiodiesel moments at home, the Renwicks say. They enjoy traveling but also find peace at their farmhouse in Winnsboro. “We tend the garden, have a pond with brim and bass, two lovable dogs, a pasture where we practice golf shots and a great porch for country sunsets,” Beth says. Joe adds, “Since we live on a farm, we enjoy fishing, hunting, gardening, and bush-hogging on biodiesel—it just smells good—in an effort to live a more sustainable lifestyle. As the months go by, we are doing less and less work at home and on the weekends, now that we have gotten things around the plant under control,” he says.

Running the business together started out very stressful, he adds, and tough on both of them. There was a lot to fix with how the business had been running. Week by week, changes and improvements were made, which they say were exciting at first, but whose fruits weren’t seen until months later. “Now, we are relatively stress-free and extremely happy together, in both our business and marriage,” Joe says. “I couldn’t be happier with my new business partner. She is smart, decisive and driven to perfect everything we do. She leaves no stone unturned, and making quick decisions about what you find under those stones is key. Beth is a machine—a perfectionist with unique problem-solving skills developed over the years working in the ER.”

Having great employees helps reduce work-related stress too. “It’s a small and mostly family-run operation,” Beth says. “Joe’s brother Matt is our collections manager, and his dad, Erwin, started working with us after he retired from the post office. Watching the three of them work together is heartwarming.” She says Erwin’s favorite quote is, “If a man can put it together, another man can fix it,” adding that observing Joe and Erwin’s individual problem-solving skills is both “entertaining and educational.” Phillip, Midlands Biofuels’ Renaissance man, can do it all, she says, and oversees fuel production and secondary processes operations, while Daryl is the firm’s commercially licensed driver who keeps everything moving safely. “They’re dedicated and self-motivated,” she says. “We couldn’t ask for better coworkers.”

She says since becoming co-owner with her husband, his passion for the industry has infected her. “It’s another aspect of our lives we can share,” Beth says. “The best part,” adds Joe, “is knowing that what I do makes a difference in the lives of millions of people.” 

When asked what it means for Midlands Biofuels to be a woman-owned business, Beth says, “It means we’re doing something big. It’s an opportunity to be a role model and mentor to young girls, and to demonstrate that there’s no limit to possibilities.”
Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
[email protected]

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