Biodiesel wins more
converts in Hawaii
Rising gas prices help sell
the benefits of an eco-friendly fuel
Tom Jones got a few odd stares from fellow motorists the other day while test-driving a Volkswagen Beetle with the slogan "100% Recycled Vegetable Oil" stamped all over it.
By the time the 50-year-old restaurant owner from Honolulu ended his spin in the avocado-green bug, he had already made up his mind.
"I want to sell my car and buy a biodiesel vehicle," said Jones, who can't wait to replace his gas-guzzling Highlander SUV with a car powered by the same oil he uses to deep-fry fish.
Jones would be using an often-ridiculed thick yellow fuel that has suddenly become so popular that there isn't enough to go around. With only one biodiesel pump on the island, all city ambulances and firetrucks in Honolulu now run on 20 percent biodiesel, and fleets of airport shuttles on Maui and the Big Island use the fuel.
Pacific Biodiesel, which has been collecting used cooking oil from restaurants for a decade to produce the fuel, has joined with partners to expand operations to Virginia, Oregon and Japan.
Country singer Willie Nelson, who owns a house on Maui and drives a 2005 Mercedes using biodiesel, is in a partnership with Pacific Biodiesel that will open a plant in Carl's Corner, Texas, in February.
Plants are also planned in Nevada and Pennsylvania.
To produce the environmentally friendly fuel, private haulers pick up the oil from restaurants and dump their loads into Pacific Biodiesel's containers. The oil is heated and filtered through a process that separates vegetable fuel from the waste product, glycerin.
In 1996, Bob King, a former diesel mechanic on Maui, and wife Kelly gambled their combined life savings on the then-risky venture.
With Hawaii gas prices topping $4 a gallon in some areas, the Kings have not increased their price more than 10 cents a gallon in five years. The price on their Oahu pump is stuck at $2.64.
"We've kept prices tied to our costs of production and doing business," said Kelly King, the company's marketing and communications director. "We started this business because we wanted to prove that we could make a viable alternative ... that eventually could be cheaper."
For years the unpopular vegetable-based fuel trickled slowly into rusty tanks of a handful of Earth-loving motorists, who made infrequent visits to the pump.
"We were struggling, trying to decide if we should stick with this business or not," King remembers thinking in 1996.