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  • Kelly King

Hawaii’s Community-Based Biodiesel Fuels ‘Community’

A traditional Hawaiian Blessing took place April 22—Earth Day—for Pacific Biodiesel’s first sunflower field on the island of Kauai, to where the company has recently expanded operations. (Photo: Pacific Biodiesel)

Climate action is most effective at the local level, where collaboration and problem-solving take flight while world leaders remain locked in analysis paralysis as the climate crisis rages on.


In my editorial series these past few issues of Biobased Diesel™, I have focused on the multitude of environmental and economic benefits of community-based biodiesel. As the longest operating community-based company in our industry, Pacific Biodiesel has become the poster child for the circular economy in Hawaii.


This issue, on the heels of two meaningful events we’ve recently hosted for our community, I am inspired to focus on the “community” aspect of our model at Pacific Biodiesel that integrates local regenerative agriculture for “food then fuel.”

A traditional Hawaiian Blessing took place April 22—Earth Day—for Pacific Biodiesel’s first sunflower field on the island of Kauai, to where the company has recently expanded operations. (Photo: Pacific Biodiesel)

This past April 22, Earth Day, our team held a traditional Hawaiian Blessing to mark the planting of our first sunflower field on the island of Kauai, following our federally funded expansion of agriculture operations we announced in the Winter 2024 issue of Biobased Diesel™. That morning, Bob (my husband and president of Pacific Biodiesel) and I felt a true sense of joy and positivity as we were warmly welcomed into this island community. It was a familiar feeling we’ve experienced often in the 30 years since we founded Pacific Biodiesel on Maui.


Community is how Pacific Biodiesel has grown over the years. We go where we are welcomed. When we outgrew our first two biodiesel plants (on Maui and Oahu) and needed to expand and enhance biodiesel production, the community on Hawaii Island rolled out the red carpet and expressed all the reasons they wanted our company to build our next biodiesel facility on their island. Bob and I were courted by several community groups to put our new, state-of-the-art biodiesel refinery on the Big Island, and we were sincerely touched by their deep understanding of the benefits of locally produced renewable fuel.


Similarly, when it came time for our agriculture operations to increase through regenerative farming of local feedstock for our biodiesel production, community members on Kauai welcomed us with open arms. The leadership team at Gay & Robinson Inc., longtime landowners and one of the last Hawaii sugarcane companies to close its plantation, made it easy for us to get a running start by making available existing warehouse space on their property and access to thousands of acres of land they intend to keep in agriculture.

Kelly King, center, with performers and others in the music industry May 4 at Pacific Biodiesel’s third annual sunflower farm music festival, produced by Licorice Pizza Records owner Kerry Brown. (Photo: Pacific Biodiesel)

A few weeks later, on May 4, we held our third annual sunflower farm music festival. Bob and I were thrilled to once again make our Maui sunflower fields available for this community cause—a farmers market, farm tours, and a musical gathering for our Maui community. Throughout the day, we celebrated those who are doing the hard work to grow food security on our island and throughout our state. The event benefitted three nonprofits that are working on food sovereignty in real time on Maui: Common Ground Collective, Maui Hub and Grow Some Good. All in collaboration with our widening circle of friends in the local and global music community thanks to Kerry Brown, who produced this year’s event, and his team at Licorice Pizza Records. In a big way, it brought me back to the beginnings of the biodiesel industry when we had huge support from celebrities like Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, Daryl Hannah, Pat Simmons, Neil Young and others who saw the sustainability we were striving for and lent their voices to the cry for more local production.


Community-based biodiesel is the best example of the circular economy. It supports food and energy security, jobs and local revenue, which are especially important on Maui where our community is still reeling from last year’s deadly fires. All of these urgent issues are interconnected and crucial to surviving and thriving in our island state, the most isolated population on the planet.


It reminds me of concentric circles starting with me and Bob and our ‘ohana (family) outward to our 100 employees statewide, to our customers and local communities across Hawaii, and further outward to fellow renewable fuel producers and industry groups around the nation like the Maine Energy Marketers Association, which, after reading my editorial in the Winter 2024 Biobased Diesel™, invited me to speak at its Northern New England Energy Conference this June. It is both comforting and frustrating that our country’s climate-response plans, which continue to ignore the superior greenhouse-gas (GHG) reductions of locally produced biodiesel, are of concern from coast to coast.


In a recent planning call with the MEMA CEO and leadership team, I learned what resonated with them about my editorial: that total electrification of on-road transportation is not the silver-bullet solution it’s often made out to be. In fact, America’s trucking industry is pushing back, demanding to keep their existing diesel fleet and simply switch to renewable fuels like biodiesel. There are significant economic factors such as the heavier loads (with battery requirements) and reduced operating hours of electric vehicles (EVs)—all expenses that would be passed on to consumers. Also, for colder climates, biodiesel as a firm liquid fuel is preferred over EVs for states like theirs that experience extreme snow and ice storms, which can shut down power grids and make electrification unreliable. They shared that polling in their state over the past two years indicates 91 percent of registered voters want a choice on how to heat their homes and fuel their vehicles. Offering choices and promoting a mix of renewables is our standpoint as well. EVs and solar power are important options, but in addition to—and not instead of—other community solutions.


It was astonishing to me that two states in geographically opposite ends of the United States would have so many economic and environmental similarities in the nexus of renewable fuel. I found our conversation that day refreshingly collaborative as we shared resources and experiences while preparing for my upcoming presentation.


In my years as an elected Maui County councilmember, a member of the Local Government Advisory Committee to the U.S. EPA, and a board member with ICLEI USA (ongoing) that resulted in my invitation to participate in two consecutive Conference of the Parties events as a presenting delegate, I’ve become convinced that climate action is most effective at the local level. Local communities are where collaboration and problem-solving take flight, faster than world leaders who seem locked in analysis paralysis as the climate crisis rages on.


This is why our mission statement has been the same for three decades—to promote a clean, sustainable energy future through the community-based production of renewable fuels. In the mid-1990s, when my diesel-mechanic husband Bob King saw the problem of dumping used cooking oil into the Central Maui Landfill and took the initiative nearly 30 years ago to find a solution, Pacific Biodiesel opened the first biodiesel pump in America and has been producing commercially viable renewable fuel in our state ever since. Seeing grassroots leaders like student climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose singular unwavering focus on spearheading weekly climate strikes as a peaceful means to challenge world leaders, is encouraging; however, it is really up to cities, towns and counties to take immediate action to solve the climate crisis for her generation. I have participated on panel discussions with mayors and councilmembers from across the country, and even from other countries like Brazil and Scotland, and we all agree that the actions taken locally are more meaningful, effective and can outlast any dictatorship that might try to reverse climate actions at the national level.


That Earth Day blessing at our first sunflower field on Kauai included a group of students and teachers from the STEM and agriculture programs at Kauai High School. Seeing the students light up when Bob invited them to climb onto our innovative new tractor to view its GPS-based planting technology made us smile.


While it has been a lot of hard work, sacrifices and dedication to get to where we are today, there has never been a moment of resting on our laurels. Changing political will, logistical challenges and climate disasters such as the recent devasting wildfires that destroyed Lahaina all affect our bottom line, and we are constantly pivoting to compensate for these setbacks. But with perseverance, we managed somehow to get our kids through college and are working on the next generation now. Bob and I are proud to be pioneers in this industry and get excited when we see our future leaders step up, take interest in agriculture and renewable energy careers, and generally roll up their sleeves to demonstrate what true community is all about.


The big question to the next presidential administration is, “Are you with us?”

Author: Kelly King


Pacific Biodiesel



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