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  • Kelly King

Community-Based Biodiesel is the Circular Economy


Kelly King, co-founder of Pacific Biodiesel, and her husband Bob own a sunflower farm on Maui, which has become a symbol for their circular-economy story in Hawaii. (Photo: Pacific Biodiesel)

There is a lot of talk about what the circular economy is, but there is much less understanding of how community-scale biodiesel production is the concept’s poster child.


I’ve had the honor of being a delegate to and presenting at the past two United Nations Conference of the Parties—COP26 and COP27—representing at these global climate-change conferences as a local elected official specifically from the island state of Hawaii, the most isolated population on the planet and a glaring example of vulnerable island communities feeling the heat on the front lines of the climate crisis.


On this world stage where local and international leaders converged to discuss climate action, there was not a lot of talk—and sadly even less action—when it comes to supporting biodiesel’s role in climate solutions. There was a virtual void of voices about community-based biodiesel and its abundant benefits as part of the circular economy.


What is the Circular Economy, and Why Does It Matter?

The circular economy is not a new concept. Rooted in the mantra of “think globally, act locally,” it is the essence of true sustainability. The circular economy is about finding unique resources in your own community, using those resources to provide local jobs creating local products and services, and maintaining the economic and environmental benefits such as taxable revenue, environmental protection, energy and food security. The circular economy brings climate action into the local equation alongside basic needs like farming, food production, clean water and housing.


Since COP26, there seems to be more buzz around the circular-economy concept, but clearly not much understanding about what it means—especially when you see world leaders singularly focused on wind, solar and batteries as the only solutions to fighting the catastrophic consequences of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. There is not a “one size fits all” silver bullet. Batteries, for example, rely on an extractive manufacturing process by global corporations—raw materials are mined in one country while batteries are produced in another and shipped for manufacturing of vehicles to yet another country. It seems easy to confuse with the global economy, but just because the world is round doesn’t mean it’s a circular economy.


Extractive renewables leave us vulnerable to catastrophic world events, natural disasters and other supply-chain disruptions that can sever our energy and food supply. It is shortsighted and dangerous to ignore locally produced biodiesel and other biofuels. We must have a balanced, diversified portfolio of renewable energies to face whatever the future brings.


I currently serve as a board member of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. At the recent ICLEI “Cities Summit of the Americas” in Denver, Colorado, the focus was on “promoting regional cooperation and uniting subnational leaders from government, civil society, business, academia, youth, culture and the arts, and indigenous and underrepresented groups.” I met with mayors from our country and other nations including Ukraine. The common thread was a focus on basic needs— fighting climate change while focusing on local food production, clean water, housing and jobs.


The brightest glimmers of hope in the fight against climate change are at the local level. Collaboration among cities and counties around the world is where sustained climate action is taking place. While national leaders play politics with renewable energy policies, local leaders are rolling up their sleeves, learning from each other and taking action. Maui County has recently passed ordinances regulating plastic and chemical pollution, mandating net-zero energy home construction as well as benchmarking county facilities to reduce water and energy use. Moving far faster than the state of Hawaii in our environmental goals, our previous council also took action in reducing harmful outdoor lighting and restoring wetlands that are our first defense against flooding.


This is where community-based biodiesel and its role in the circular economy becomes crystal clear.


‘How’ Matters as Much as ‘What’ We Do

Community-based biodiesel is the poster child for the circular economy. My husband Bob King and I founded Pacific Biodiesel with this model in 1995 on Maui, where we created the first retail biodiesel pump in America. We first produced biodiesel by recycling used cooking oil from local restaurants—and still do. Today we’re expanding our local feedstock through agriculture, using regenerative-farming practices to grow crops like sunflowers to produce culinary oils for local restaurants and consumers, which also supports food security in Hawaii. Coming full circle, we then recycle the used cooking oil for production of our premium distilled biodiesel sold entirely in Hawaii, creating local jobs, revenue and energy security for our island state.


Willie Nelson, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, is shown here in the mid-2000s with longtime biodiesel friends Bob and Kelly King, founders of Pacific Biodiesel, America’s longest-operating biodiesel company. (Photo: Pacific Biodiesel)

In the very early days of Pacific Biodiesel, we were small and grassroots, attracting values-driven people excited to support locally produced biodiesel. Supporters and celebrity friends, including Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson, Darryl Hannah, Jack Johnson and Paul Mitchell founder John Paul DeJoria made biodiesel sexy and have been eager to highlight our community-based model, which brings benefits directly to our communities. They believed in us because our local biodiesel story was pure and real. It made a tangible local impact. It touched local lives and cleaned up our local environment. We were real people making this innovative, clean fuel for our local community. Farmers and conscientious consumers like to say it’s important to know who’s growing your food. With Pacific Biodiesel, our customers know their local fuel producer. I can’t count all the times I’ve been thanked by customers for providing them with a cleaner, more-environmental alternative to fossil diesel.


Today, Bob and I are also farmers. Our Maui sunflower farm has become a symbol for our circular-economy story here in Hawaii—attracting a new wave of supporters. This Earth Day, we hosted our Sunflower Farm Music Fest at our farm—an all-day live-music event focused on raising funds and awareness for Hawaii’s food hubs that are supporting local farmers to increase local food production. The event’s good intention to support this important, local cause caught the eye of multiplatinum music producer and owner of Licorice Pizza Records, Kerry Brown, who owns a home on Maui and immediately understood the urgency of the food-security issue here in Hawaii. A drummer who once performed with The Smashing Pumpkins, Kerry enthusiastically joined our concert lineup as headliner to help us expand our impact—and announced he’d produce a vinyl record of the day’s live music and donate one to every ticket purchaser.


This example reinforces the power of the circular economy—local farming, local food, local biodiesel, local jobs. Local keeps it real. People can participate and benefit directly. Because it also motivates folks to stand up and get involved, local is what we need to fight climate change.


Pacific Biodiesel has made biodiesel in Hawaii for Hawaii since 1995. Founders Kelly and Bob King are shown with Jenna Long (center), director of operations, at the company’s Hawaii Island refinery, which produces more than 5.5 million gallons of premium distilled biodiesel a year sold entirely in Hawaii. (Photo: Pacific Biodiesel)

In the biodiesel sector, we can overcome the greed that feeds the “bigger is better” corporate instincts. We need to be consistently beating our drum about the multitude of benefits community-based biodiesel brings in the race to reverse the impacts of the climate crisis. In 2007, Willie Nelson, his wife Annie, Darryl Hannah and I created the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance to help the small, local producers struggling to remain viable in a world where venture capitalism seeks to conquer and centralize all promising new industries. We were focused on realizing the intended beauty of community-based biodiesel—that we can create clean energy in our own hometowns for our own people and do our part to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.


Local biodiesel is integral to the circular economy. So many are struggling these days to make ends meet—it’s hard to even contemplate climate mitigation when you can’t find housing and don’t know how you’ll feed your kids next month. Community-based biodiesel gives power to local communities, literally and figuratively, and it connects with the basic needs that folks must consider in their daily lives. Whether or not you believe in the science of climate change, the benefits are increasingly clear: You can change your fuel even if you can’t afford to change your car, and you can support local, green jobs as well as energy and food security. Collectively, we can leave a sustainable, cleaner environment for the next generation to enjoy.


At Pacific Biodiesel, we have been steadfast in our community-based mission for nearly three decades. And now, as farmers on Maui, Bob and I are beginning to realize our vision of full-circle sustainability. We hope our country’s state and federal governments continue to support our grassroots intentions, even as President Biden pours billions of dollars into hydrogen and electric vehicles. As our government continues to explore and fund new technologies, remember the strongest renewable energy portfolio is as diverse as the people of America.






Author: Kelly King

Co-Founder, Pacific Biodiesel

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