Pacific Biodiesel setting the Pace on Maui

By Harry Eagar
The Maui News

KAHULUI—Take a bow, Maui! You generate way more waste grease than other places.

Per capita, four times as much — contributing to the success of the community-based model of alternative energy, sustainability and independence, The Maui News reported today.

The model was created by Bob and Kelly King, founders of Pacific Biodiesel, which has been turning out biofuel at the Central Maui Landfill for 12 years.

They have definite ideas about how to get Maui (and other places) off petroleum, and their approach is different from some of the bigger players’.

To take just one of several differences, they are against the idea of using liquid biofuels in electricity generators. That is the approach being taken by Maui Electric Co. and BlueEarth Biodiesel, which are projecting a biodiesel refinery up to 240 times bigger than Pacific Biodiesel’s successful Maui refinery, which produces about 500,000 gallons per year.

In their view, that violates the guideline that says do not go more than a two-hour truck drive to get your feedstock.

“If you need a rail car, it’s not local,” Kelly King said.

Using imported feedstock (probably palm oil from Southeast Asia) also does nothing to insulate the island from interruptions of foreign sources.

Kelly King adds that Kahului Harbor is not set up to handle such large volumes of vegetable oil.

Better, she says, to look to wind, solar, perhaps even wave energy for electricity and save the liquid biofuels for transportation.

The community model does not necessarily mean only small plants, however. The Maui plant’s capacity is limited by the supply of used cooking oil available on the island.

Pacific Biodiesel’s O’ahu plant is 10 times as big.

The Maui company also is a partner with SeQuential-Pacific Biodiesel of Portland in the first commercial biodiesel plant in the Pacific Northwest. With production capacity of 5.5 million gallons a year, its location in Salem has the potential to tap very large quantities of canola oil — opening options for further growth in production.

The issue isn’t whether the feedstock is virgin or reclaimed, Kelly King said, but how far you have to go to get it. From time to time, the Maui plant brings in outside feedstock to accommodate demand, but it’s a money loser as well as being a violation of the community-based model.

Although the amount of fuel produced is small — 500,000 gallons vs. 40 million to 120 million gallons proposed by BlueEarth — there is more local feedstock available than people suspect.

Bob King was running King Diesel, a repair and maintenance service (since sold), when he started thinking about biodiesel. At that time, 1995, the county was dealing with a severe waste grease issue. Restaurant grease congealing in sewer lines was causing spills, or waste grease was going into the landfills.

King Diesel maintained the landfill’s generators, and King had the idea of converting the gunk to diesel oil and using it in the generators.

Conversion of animal and plant oils was in use in Europe, although it had not caught on in the United States, despite some commercially-oriented research supported by the Department of Energy at a laboratory in Idaho.

The Kings’ business brochures describe the next step as “humble beginnings,” but they were pioneers. They opened the first retail biodiesel plant using waste oil inAmerica in Kahului, and they have since built or consulted on plants in Japan and in seven Mainland states: Texas, Oregon, Virginia, Maryland, Nevada, Californiaand Pennsylvania.

Not all are operating. The community-based model is a small, even mom-and-pop model. One plant was mothballed when the entrepreneur died. But the Oahu plant was so successful that it was doubled in capacity.

Pacific Biodiesel Technologies, one of the spinoffs, now offers plans for systems with up to 10 million gallons per year capacity. Feedstocks include soybean, canola and cottonseed oils; lard, tallow and grease from pork, beef and poultry packing operations; and, of course, used cooking oil.

When investigating their first plant, Bob King learned the Department of Energy was estimating the amount of used grease being generated in the U.S. was around half a gallon per person per year.

“We needed about 50,000 to 60,000 gallons a year” for the first plant, he said. Maui, with a population of over 100,000, looked about right.

It turned out, “we collect lmost two gallons per person per year,” Bob King said, most of it coming from restaurants that turn over hundreds of gallons of cooking oil weekly.

Collecting the used oil created more local jobs, as well. On Maui, private contractors with pump trucks got the contracts; on O’ahu, a Pacific Biodiesel sister company does the collecting.

Part of the haul of used grease can be explained by the presence of tourists, who make the actual population about a third larger than the resident population and are more likely to be eating out. Part can be explained by Maui County’s effective enforcement of its ordinance that compels restaurants to intercept and collect grease – which it had to do or face of Environmental Protection Agency penalties.

“Still, people are shocked at how much oil we have,” said King.

Plants can be designed to process a variety of feedstocks. One in Maryland uses both soybean oil and chicken fat from a nearby processor.