On a Simple, Sustainable Mission

Word of Bob and Kelly King's grassroots approach to producing biodiesel is getting around. Pacific Biodiesel Inc., with its humble Hawaiian roots in the Central Maui Landfill, continues along its community-based, sustainable path using locally produced feedstocks.
By Susanne Retka Schill | September 04, 2007
Early customers of Pacific Biodiesel Inc. were a dedicated lot. They drove out of their way to fill up with biodiesel at the Central Maui Landfill and paid 75 cents a gallon more for the renewable fuel than petroleum-based diesel. "It was really touching," says Bob King, founder and president of Hawaii's pioneer biodiesel company. "These people were not wealthy. They would spend part of their paycheck for the fuel, thank us and bring us bananas and onions."

Today it's easier to fill up with biodiesel. The B100 pump is in Kahului on the island of Maui, Hawaii, next to Pacific Biodiesel's offices. The fuel now costs 50 cents a gallon less than regular diesel and there's a waiting list of 130 individuals plus several business accounts wanting to become regular customers once the supply increases. "We like having the retail pump at the office," King says, "We get deep in plans for plant construction, engineering and finance. It's nice to have a person walk through the door and say, 'Thanks for making this.' How many chances do we get in our normal life to purchase something that truly makes a difference? It's a tank of petroleum that didn't get shipped to Hawaii." King's wife, Kelly, says their customers find hope in buying biodiesel. "Here's something they can do, they're part of the solution and it's easy for them. They come in, pay us, thank us and share stories," she says. "We're building a community around biodiesel on Maui."

Bob King was a diesel mechanic servicing the generators at the landfill in the early 1990s when he learned that disposing of waste vegetable oil was a problem. "They were landfilling all the grease because we didn't have other markets," he recalls. "It was really a mess-composting didn't work. I decided I'd try burning it in diesel engines." He used the Internet, which was new at that time, to make connections with an Idaho researcher. "I learned about biodiesel and ended up building a plant to make it. At that time I thought that was it, one plant on Maui and maybe another plant in Hawaii somewhere." He invested his savings and was backed by others including the contractor making compost at the landfill, an employee at his King Diesel shop and the Idaho researcher.

That was in 1996. The pump located next to the 200,000 gallon-per-year plant was the first retail pump in the nation. The price of crude oil was $12 a barrel and biodiesel was a new product that required a lot of customer education. "It was a struggle," Bob King says. He continued his business as a diesel mechanic and hired Carl Nagata to work in the plant. Kelly King joined the effort by using her marketing and graphics background to get the word out. With one plant, one employee and a secure feedstock, Pacific Biodiesel's costs were stable. The Kings rewarded their loyal customers with a stable price, not raising it for eight years. "It wasn't until we moved offices and hired employees that we raised the cost," Kelly King says.

Within a year of starting up the plant at the Maui landfill, a Japanese businessman learned about the project on the Internet and contacted the Kings. Their second plant was completed in 1997 at Nagano, Japan, to recycle restaurant grease into biodiesel.

Ten years later, Pacific Biodiesel has built 10 community-based biodiesel plants. What started out as a solution to a landfill disposal problem, turned into a mission to create community-based, sustainable biodiesel production facilities.

Promoting Sustainability
The mission got a boost when Annie and Willie Nelson discovered Pacific Biodiesel and hopped on board. The Nelsons and their two children have a home on Maui. "I read a story about Kelly and Bob and did some reading on my own," Annie says. "I tried to figure out what was the negative. I saw a future here for farmers." Her first step was to purchase a Volkswagen Jetta and try it out herself. She asked the dealer to put only enough fuel in the tank to get her from the delivery dock to Pacific Biodiesel. Willie Nelson was so impressed that he bought a 2005 Mercedes diesel and did the same. "I call them our virgin B100 cars," Annie Nelson says.

Since then, the Nelsons have become big supporters of biodiesel and investors in Pacific Biodiesel projects, including one close to Willie Nelson's hometown at Carl's Corner, Texas. It was the King's integrity and production methods that attracted the Nelsons. "Their concern was about the community," Annie Nelson says. "The model for Carl's Corner is that [the biodiesel] is locally grown, locally produced and locally distributed." The 2 MMgy plant uses locally raised cottonseed oil and waste vegetable oil to produce biodiesel sold at the Carl's Corner Truck Stop on Interstate Highway 35.

Bob King believes that the best thing about biodiesel is that it can be made on a small, community-based scale. "For the first time since hay, farmers can make their own fuel," he says. "Our focus is putting the energy back into the community where it should be rather than these mega plants trying to buy feedstocks all over the planet." The Kings are critical of the move toward large biodiesel plants, and investors primarily interested in making a profit. "People talk about having to [transport the fuel by rail], to me that's the first indication that it's not sustainable," Bob King says. Kelly King echoes her husband's sentiments. "It's getting away from the grassroots reasons why biodiesel is a wonderful alternative fuel, if we do it correctly," she says. "People don't realize renewable doesn't mean sustainable."

The goal is to match the plant to local feedstocks and markets. "In a small community like Maui, where there are a few 100,000 gallons of used cooking oil and no fuel crop, you're looking at a small plant," Kelly King says. The Kings would like to see fuel crops developed on the islands, however, they know that will take some time. "You have to realize that there's not a combine in the entire state of Hawaii," Bob King points out. An initial step in that process was made possible by a $100,000 U.S. EPA grant presented to Honolulu Clean Cities. The money will be used to fund a study to evaluate samples of potential Hawaiian oil crops such as avocadoes, kukui nuts, palm oil and castor beans. Kukui nuts were traditionally used for lamp oil, Kelly King says. They want to know if the oil would make biodiesel to ASTM standards.

The Kings have built other biodiesel plants that use waste vegetable oil or locally grown oils. "We choose our clients carefully, almost as carefully as we chose our partners," Kelly King says. "We've tried to stay away from venture capitalists and keep limited to people who care about the mission."

In Nevada, they built a plant for a ranching client who uses oil from canola crops raised 10 miles from the plant to produce the fuel used on the ranch. In Salem, Ore., waste vegetable oil from the Kettle Foods Inc. potato chip plant provides the feedstock for a 1 MMgy plant. Pacific Biodiesel partnered with SeQuential Biofuels LLC in 2005 to build the plant. An expansion to 5 MMgy is underway and locally grown canola oil will be used to supplement the waste vegetable oil feedstock. The Nelsons, who are investors in the project, joined the Kings in early July in Salem to announce the expansion and celebrate Oregon's biofuels initiatives. "Willie said, 'We've got to pat these guys on the back, they're doing the right thing,'" Kelly King says. In December 2006, the city of Portland became the first U.S. city to adopt a renewable fuels standard mandating all fuels sold within the city limits to be E10 and B5 by Nov. 1. The governor signed legislation at SeQuential earlier in July that beefs up the Oregon renewable fuels standard.

Forming an Alliance
Kelly King and Annie Nelson along with celebrity Daryl Hannah and others have taken their sustainable biodiesel mission to the next level by organizing the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance. They have a financial sponsor and have begun to develop a nonprofit organization. "We've got a good roster on the advisory committee," says Annie Nelson, naming organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Worldwatch Institute, Whole Foods Market IP L.P., Farm Aid and the International Association for Trade Policy. They formed the organization to educate consumers about sustainable biodiesel and to develop a seal for operations meeting sustainability criteria. "The goal is when people drive up they will choose the pump that has a seal on it," Annie Nelson says. The seal tells consumers that the biodiesel they are using was produced in a sustainable manner.

Pacific Biodiesel, the Kings, the Nelsons and their vision for community-based sustainable biodiesel are featured in a documentary called "Revolution Green" released this summer by Springfield Entertainment Group and available online at www.revolutiongreen.com. Director Stephen Strout and producer Jessica Kelly spent two years filming the biodiesel promoters to tell the story of their mission. "The first biodiesel pump at the Maui landfill was still operational when we started the project," Strout recalls. "Here's this guy who took all his own savings to start this. That pump represents a leap of faith."

Susanne Retka Schill is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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