The kings of biodiesel
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
Hailed as model entrepreneurs of alternative energy, Bob and Kelly King of Maui might also be considered modern-day alchemists. Working with the most disposable of materials — sludgy, french-fry-clogged restaurant grease — they've gained national acclaim for producing something as good as gold in the current market: low-cost, clean-burning fuel.
Among the numerous converts to the King's Pacific Biodiesel mission are musician Jack Johnson, actor and part-time Maui resident Woody Harrelson and country-music legend Willie Nelson, who has partnered with the Kings to bring biodiesel — BioWillie! — to Texas.
Not that they asked for any of this — not at first.
Bob King spent 25 years as a diesel mechanic, working mostly on engines and generators. Through his King Diesel company, King held maintenance contracts for several Maui businesses, including Central Maui Landfill.
Workers there continually kvetched about restaurant grease, which occasionally produced spontaneous fires, and which, they feared, posed a possible threat to groundwater.
King recalled from his days as a journeyman that truck drivers in a bind sometimes used vegetable oil as a substitute for diesel.
With a little research, he found out about biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced through a chemical reaction of alcohol and plant matter, vegetable or animal oil, fats or greases.
"He went back to the landfill and told the guys that they should check it out," said Kelly King. "They told him, 'Yeah — you should check it out.' "
Working with a researcher from the University of Idaho to firm up the science of producing the fuel, and setting up a site to refine waste oil into biodiesel, King got the business that would become Pacific Biodiesel running in under six months.
It became the first biodiesel processing operation in the Pacific, offering the nation's first retail biodiesel pump in 1996.
'WE SAW IT COMING'
Supply far outstripped the demand early on.
"We didn't have a good market when we started," King says.
"People were like, 'bio-what?' " says Kelly King.
And as long as petroleum diesel was cheaper than biodiesel, the viability of the Kings' endeavor was severely limited.
Yet the Kings were confident they were doing the right things, and for the right reasons.
"We saw it coming," Kelly King said.
Today biodiesel is $2.84 a gallon on Maui, while petro diesel costs $4 in at least one location.
Kelly King eventually assumed the company's public relations duties, and Pacific Biodiesel slowly took hold. The company's client list now includes the City and County of Honolulu — a refinery was built on Sand Island in 2002 — and Maui County. Pacific Biodiesel has also partnered with Maui Oil to supply biodiesel for the production of B20, a blend of 80 percent diesel and 20 percent biodiesel.
"They've been great trailblazers," says Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club of Hawai'i. "Some people picture Hawai'i as a role model for alternative energy, but we've actually been on the trailing edge. We shouldn't be just a user (of alternative fuels) but a producer. Now here's a company that has actually gone out and done it. We're lucky to have people here who talk the talk and walk the walk."
The Kings' pioneering ways have attracted attention from around the globe. Pacific Biodiesel helped to build a refinery in Japan in 1997, as well as several other refineries around the U.S., including facilities from Pennsylvania to Oregon. The Kings have also helped the Alaska Energy Authority explore the use of fish-oil products for biodiesel.
The couple's partnership with Willie Nelson, which follows a similar model, has attracted broad attention.
Three years ago, Nelson's wife, Annie, bought a Jetta that runs on biodiesel. Willie Nelson was skeptical at first, but when he saw that the car ran well, he promptly bought a Mercedes that could use the alternative fuel. Soon, he began to recognize the potential good biodiesel could offer two communities for which he has a strong affinity: farmers (who could grow the raw material for the fuel), and truckers (who could save money using the fuel).
Partnering with Pacific Biodiesel, Nelson (and fellow investors including actor Morgan Freeman) established a biodiesel refinery at the Carl's Corner truck stop in Texas. The truck stop was already selling "BioWillie" fuel to truckers and other motorists.
"At first, I didn't think truckers were the right audience to market biodiesel to," Bob King admits. "But then Willie went on the radio and it became the talk of the CB. It's been a great success."
Because of the limited amount of recyclable restaurant oil available, the Kings are exploring the use of locally grown crops to fortify and expand their production. They're awaiting word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about a grant, worth as much as $2 million, which would allow them to begin experimenting with different crops.
"It's hard to say what will happen," King says. "The viability will depend on the price of diesel. It could be 10 to 20 years (of research and development of crops), but if we don't get started now, we'll never get there.
Despite the Kings' success with biodiesel, the couple understands that the government and public's interest in alternative fuel can shift quickly if and when the price of oil drops.
The Kings say biodiesel is a valuable complement to oil-based and alternative energy sources, not necessarily a single long-term solution to the country's energy woes.
Still, the fact that celebrities and the public are now approaching biodiesel without prejudice says much about how far the Kings have taken the industry. Pacific Biodiesel was mentioned prominently in a full-page newspaper ad promoting the Hawaiian Electric Co.'s new alternative energy program. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson toured the Maui plant in February. Local and national publications have turned to Bob King for commentary on the prospects of alternative energy. And last year, the company was one of eight recipients (and the only American winner) of the Blue Sky Award, sponsored by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Technology Promotion Center for Sustainable Development.
"I'm optimistic," says Mikulina, the Sierra Club director. "Just five years ago, if you did biodiesel, you probably had long hair, ate granola and tried to follow the Dead. What Bob and Kelly have done is a great representation of where Hawai'i could go."
Of his new life as a poster guy for alternative fuel, Bob King says simply: "I think it's nice that we're finally able to talk to mainstream business and mainstream consumers and say this is a viable alternative. We're not trying to sell it because we're snake oil salesmen.
"This is truly an alternative," he says. "We don't need to be dependent on petroleum if we do this. It's real and it's happening. It's hope, it's the future and we can do it right now."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.