Cover Story

Fill up on this: Kelly and Bob King at one of their pumps
Image: Malia Leinau

Can Hawai'i find four-wheel sustainability in cooking oil?


Cover image for Nov 2, 2005

For the first time in Pacific Biodiesel’s 10-year existence, local demand for biodiesel exceeds the company’s supply. It’s not because everyone suddenly has a green conscience–with prices hovering around $3 per gallon, biodiesel is cheaper than petroleum diesel. According to, the cheapest petroleum diesel on O’ahu sold Monday for $2.92 per gallon and $3.59 per gallon on Maui. Pure biodiesel currently sells on O’ahu for $2.83 per gallon and $2.91 on Maui.

For the month of September, the Maui-based company, which has a biodiesel facility on Sand Island, stopped taking new customers (individual, commercial and fleet) in order to assure they could supply the surge in demand. Fifty Maui residents anxiously waited while their names were added to the list of potential future B100 consumers.

In the good news/bad news department, the Navy has begun talks with Pacific Biodiesel–the law requires the armed forces to use B-20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel) in all non-combat vehicles by 2006. The proposed Superferry is interested in using biodiesel as well.

Even with taking into account the additional supply of biodiesel from a planned Hawai’i Island biodiesel production plant, a commitment from Norwegian Cruise Lines to supply Pacific Biodiesel with about 1,200 gallons per week of used cooking grease–the main ingredient in biodiesel–and the Sand Island plant producing its full potential of 1 million gallons per year, future demand will continue to exceed local supply.

‘We don’t want to tell people to eat more fried foods so we can have a greater supply of local fuel,’ laughs Kelly King, who, with her husband Bob, owns Pacific Biodiesel.

Knowing the supply of waste cooking oil in the islands is finite and limited, Pacific Biodiesel is investing significant resources in the exploration of fuel crops in Hawai’i. These crops could develop a new independent energy industry, support a number of local industries and create jobs. They may also help make these isolated islands less dependent on foreign oil, mainland shipping schedules and high trans-Pacific fees.

Diesel details

In the 1890s, Rudolf Diesel designed an engine that ran on refined peanut oil–the original biodiesel. The German inventor originally set out to improve the efficiency of the steam engine in order to help keep the world’s struggling agriculture industry alive in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Developing a domestic fuel crop, Diesel reasoned, would allow farmers to stay on their land by developing a sustainable new industry.

Unfortunately, in the 1920s the oily hands of the petroleum tycoons strangled the life out of this self-sustaining vision by pressuring diesel engine manufacturers to alter their products to run on lower viscosity fossil fuel residue instead of a biomass-based fuel. Diesel’s vision was drowned in a sea of crude oil.

Fast forward eight decades and give the globe a good spin, and you’ll find Pacific Biodiesel’s Bob and Kelly King. Reviving Diesel’s vision, the Kings understand the need for long-term vision and sustainability–especially on islands where virtually every commodity is imported. The Kings’ company, Pacific Biodiesel, has been producing biodiesel from used cooking grease collected from Maui’s restaurants and hotels since 1996, and from O’ahu establishments since 2000.

Every month, Pacific Biodiesel’s Maui plant at the county landfill diverts an average of 80 tons of used cooking oil and more than 375 tons of grease-trap waste. At the Sand Island facility on O’ahu, they divert 188 tons of used cooking oil and 655 tons of grease-trap waste from the landfill.

To quench Maui’s thirst for this liquid gold, Pacific Biodiesel is now shipping more than 12,000 gallons of biodiesel from O’ahu to the Maui facility. Over the past six months on Maui, sales of B100 have spiked from an average 9,000 gallons per month to 12,000 gallons per month.

Currently, Hawai’i imports 300 million gallons of petroleum diesel fuel annually and all goods and services in the state are moved by the use of diesel, says King. As the price of fossil fuel rises, so do the corresponding prices of Hawai’i’s goods, services and cost of living. Many believe residents of this archipelago in the middle of the Pacific are being played like puppets on a string by the oil industry. ‘As long as we’re solely dependent on petroleum, we’re not sustainable,’ says King. ‘We can build a whole new industry in Hawai’i, but it will take some financial backing.’

Fields of fuel

Ed Reinhardt, president of Maui Electric Company (MECO) shares King’s concerns and Pacific Biodiesel’s vision. Reinhardt worries about the reliance on imported fossil fuel for Maui’s and the state’s energy needs.

‘This is one of the things that occasionally keeps me up at night,’ says Reinhardt. ‘It’s also one of the reasons why in recent years MECO has more aggressively pursued alternate energy resources through our non-utility company, Renewable Hawaii Inc. on Maui. Notwithstanding the state’s RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standards) mandate, and as the cost of imported fuel rises, it will become more economically feasible to develop renewable energy technologies and grow feed stock.’

He believes growing a local fuel crop is one of the things that may need to happen if we are to become self-sufficient in energy generation.

Reinhardt says MECO would seriously consider running more units with biodiesel if the island had a stable supply of biodiesel at a cost that would be effective for customers. The MECO’s acceptance of biodiesel will need additional consideration.

MECO currently uses B100 to cut down on emissions from two 12.5-megawatt diesel generators at the Ma’alaea Power Plant. ‘Biodiesel has a high [about 10 percent] oxygen content and using it on two of our diesel units during startup, shutdown and after overhaul engine break-in periods enables the units to stay within the limits of its environmental permit during these periods,’ says Reinhardt.

John R. Brooks II, manager of Maui Agricultural Partners also supports cutting this stranglehold: ‘We live on an island that is largely dependent on imports to sustain the basic lifestyle we enjoy. It makes sense to explore options that would enable us to survive any breakdown or significant interruptions of the delivery of those imports. The development of coordinated and interrelated agricultural operations, such as growing the fuel crops for biodiesel, would facilitate the local production of fuel and food to help meet local island needs.’

The state’s renewable energy goal is to have 20 percent of Hawai’i’s electricity generated from renewable sources by 2020. Hawaiian Electic Company (HECO) spokesman Peter Rosegg says HECO would consider utilizing biodiesel if a sufficient steady supply is available at reasonable prices. Rosegg says HECO is considering biodiesel as a renewable energy source for their new proposed power plant. ‘The new plant we have applied to build by 2009 at Campbell Industrial Park will be fuel-flexible. That means the plant will be capable of burning naphtha or diesel to start and could change to biodiesel, ethanol or even hydrogen when these renewable become more locally available,’ says Rosegg.

Taking steps to develop a local feedstock crop on Maui, in June 2004 Pacific Biodiesel in partnered with Maui Land and Pineapple (MLP) on a yearlong experiment growing renewable fuel crops. According to Claire Sullivan, MLP’s manager of special projects and corporate communication, the trial project took place at the former pineapple farm at MLP’s Honolua Farm in West Maui.

Spearheading the project was Marco Rojas, a graduate from Earth University in Costa Rica. Rojas grew sunflower, safflower and soybeans on 30 10-by-10 plots. Unfortunately, the only results that could be measured were the weight gains among the local bird population. ‘The Franklin [birds] devoured the crops,’ says Sullivan.

Kelly King now realizes a successful demonstration project will require more acreage to allow for the ‘bird tax’ and to accurately determine the costs and the yields of oil per crop per year. She has been speaking with individual Maui and Kaua’i farmers interested in participating in a demo project. ‘Getting the land is not the issue,’ says King. ‘I have local farmers approaching me offering 80 to 100 acres ready to grow the seed crop.’

For now the obstacle is securing financial support, so the project can pay a local farmer to grow a seed crop such as sunflower, safflower, soybean or the Jatropha tree. ‘We just need to get the crop in the ground so we can calculate how much we can yield in Hawai’i’s climate and soil conditions and come up with hard figures of how much it will cost,’ says King.

She is working on an economic spreadsheet model that a team of students from Santa Clara University developed for Pacific Biodiesel. The spreadsheet allows her to plug in crop scenarios and calculate if the economics will work.

The Kings are convinced the project can succeed. ‘We believe every community should have the opportunity to use its own resources to make its own energy and lessen their petroleum dependency,’ says King. She believes a local fuel-crop industry will not only keep agricultural land in agriculture, it will diversify the local agriculture industry and establish a sustainable agriculture system in the state.

‘Give Pacific Biodiesel some of the money going to support the tourism industry–which is basically staking an industry that’s nothing new–and we’ll build a whole new sustainable industry around it,’ says King.

Feeding the future

A major component of a biodiesel agriculture equation is the local cattle industry. Once fuel oil is extracted from a seed crop, the byproduct can be turned into animal feed. This is also a critical step to keeping local cattle on Maui and building another viable local industry. Access to relatively inexpensive feed and the lack of a slaughter facility on Maui has forced cattlemen to ship their cows to mainland feedlots to fatten them up.

‘The seed crop we decide to grow will not only be based on which one will generate the largest oil yields, but which one provides a byproduct with the highest amount of protein for the cattle meal,’ says King.

A local processing facility and a rendering plant to deal with the waste stream is needed to complete the circle of sustainability. Tallow, or animal fat, collected from the rendering plant can also be made into biodiesel. The manure and bone meal can be turned into fertilizer for the farmers. ‘Working closely with the cattle industry will add value to the crop and help us buy down the cost by getting other values out of it–making it a very sustainable crop,’ says King.

Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings supports the Kings’ vision. ‘Because Hawai’i is over dependent on fossil fuel, I believe we must look for alternative energy sources for the 21st century,’ says Hemmings. ‘Those sources should be clean, renewable and readily available like biodiesel. Biodiesel should be a major component of any comprehensive renewable-energy package.’

The Republican senator is putting together a broad-based legislative package to be introduced this coming session to lessen Hawai’i’s dependence on imported fossil fuel. His Energy Independence Package comprises a comprehensive set of energy proposals that will reduce the use of fossil fuels through creative uses of wind, wave and solar energy, as well as biofuels and hydrogen.

‘The package includes proposals to enhance conservation by encouraging drivers to operate alternatively fueled vehicles, increase the commercial availability of alternative fuels for both transportation and electric power production, including a Farm to Fuel project for biodiesel, and expedite the use of clean, conservation-friendly energy sources that are readily available within the state,’ says Hemmings.

As envisioned, the Farm to Fuel project will have enough funding from the state to compensate farmers who grow the fuel-crop demonstration model. But to pass, the bill will need broad-based support. ‘This package could be hindered by public complacency,’ says Hemmings. ‘The people of Hawai’i need to call their legislators–regardless of their party–and ask them to support a renewable fuel package.’

Bob King’s innovation is being praised locally and nationally. In October, Pacific Biodiesel was awarded the United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s BlueSky Award in Shenzhen, China. Even oilman President Bush commended Pacific Biodiesel last May after visiting the newly opened biodiesel production facility in West Point, Va. that Pacific Biodiesel designed and constructed.

Hawai’i’s future will be measured not only by the bottom line, but also by environmental, social and ethical performance. Environmentalists and a new generation of entrepreneurs like the Kings say elected officials must accept the responsibility of capturing what’s best for residents economically, socially and environmentally for the island economy to thrive.

For more information:

Pacific Biodiesel O’ahu Sand Island, 1003 Makepono Street, Honolulu, 808-841-2177, sells B100 biodiesel, $2.91 per gallon.

Pacific Biodiesel, 40 Hobron Ave, Kahului, 808-877-3144, sells B100 biodiesel, $2.83 per gallon.

Paia Chevron, 99 Hana Highway, Paia, 808-579-9440, sells a 20/80-biodiesel blend, $3.22 per gallon.