It happened at the worst possible time. Mid-October, 2005 was supposed to be a time of celebration for Pacific Biodiesel.
The Kahului-based, environmentally friendly refiner had just won a coveted BlueSky Award. Sponsored by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Technology Promotion Center for Sustainable Development in Shenzen, China, the award encourages renewable energy research in developing countries.
“All the experts were very receptive to our process of recycling used cooking oil into biodiesel,” Pacific Biodiesel Marketing and Communications Director Kelly King—wife of company president Robert King—said in a company press release. “Most of them could see the application as beneficial to China as well as their own countries.”
Back home, things were very different. At roughly the same time Chinese officials were congratulating the Kings in Shenzen, mechanics working for the County of Maui’s Public Works department were staging a revolt against the very fuel so many were honoring around the world.
The County of Maui had been using Pacific Biodiesel’s B20 blend—20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent regular diesel—since the late 1990s. But for much of October and November 2005, county Public Works mechanics stopped pouring biodiesel into about 200 county trucks and vehicles.
“None of our garage personnel care for biodiesel,” said a county official familiar with the mechanic’s revolt. “We had a lot of problems with it. [Using biodiesel] was something that came from higher up. [The mechanics] were kinda pushed into it.”
The official said mechanics were repeatedly cleaning and replacing clogged fuel lines, injection pumps and even fuel tanks. It added up to thousands of dollars in maintenance to a variety of vehicles that the official insisted never had to be done when petroleum-based diesel fuel was running through the engines.
“There was rubber deterioration,” the official said. “Gelling, too. And rapid growth of algae [in the tanks], clogged filters and fuel tanks. They had to remove the fuel tanks to remove the gel on the bottom. You could clean it, but they just replaced the tanks. Biodiesel doesn’t like to sit. It separates. No one ever warned us about separation.”
According to the official and county memoranda, county public works officials weren’t happy with the revolt.
“It has come to my attention that the use of B20 fuel… has been discontinued within the County’s fleet of vehicles which fill up at Public Works’ baseyards,” Public Works and Environmental Management Director Milton M. Arakawa wrote to Highways Division Chief Brian Hashiro on Nov. 14, 2005. “Although I understand that B20 has been suspected of causing problems with fuel line coagulation and injector clogging, I have not been able to confirm such problems are caused by the direct use of B20… You are hereby directed to resume use of B20 fuel at the Wailuku Baseyard, subject to its availability.”
Public Works mechanics were soon pumping Pacific Biodiesel B20 again. The official familiar with the revolt—who requested anonymity, fearing his job would be in jeopardy if he spoke out publicly—said baseyard mechanics haven’t dealt with any fuel system problems since.
“It seems like they [Pacific Biodiesel] had some bad stuff coming through,” the official familiar with the mechanics revolt said. “Biodiesel has not been, from what I gather, thoroughly researched. It hasn’t had enough time on the road. In Europe, there are crops grown for the fuel. It’s clean. But here, they’re using waste oil. You get all kinds of stuff in there.”
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Bob King founded Pacific Biodiesel in 1996 to provide the island—indeed, the whole Pacific Rim—a steady source of inexpensive, recycled fuel that wouldn’t produce anything like the emissions that come from petroleum-based diesel fuel.
“We’re not going to get rich,” he told The Maui News at the time. “But it will pay for itself.”
Since then King has built a biodiesel plant in Honolulu; partnered with a Nagano, Japan-based Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to turn grease into biodiesel; opened plants in Virginia, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania; and partnered with Willie Nelson to build another plant in Carl’s Corner, Texas. In April 2005, President George W. Bush honored Pacific Biodiesel with a visit to the company’s Virginia refinery.
Biodiesel is an alternative fuel—it’s a Fatty Acid Methyl Ester (FAME), usually derived from corn, canola, sugar or, in the case of Pacific Biodiesel’s Maui operation, used cooking oil from restaurants.
It contains no petroleum but can be mixed with regular diesel fuel.* There are a variety of blends, ranging from B2 and B5—two and five percent bio-substitutes, respectively—to B20 and even B100, which is 100 percent FAME. The advantages are plentiful and include lower cost than petroleum-based diesel fuel and much lower emissions. At press time, a gallon of biodiesel sold at Pacific Biodiesel’s Kahului refinery costs $2.84, while petroleum-based diesel elsewhere on the island costs $3.92.
The automotive industry seems to be embracing biodiesel, though in a tentative way. For instance, Jeep introduced its 2005 Liberty as biodiesel-ready, though the company recommended drivers not use a richer blend than B5, which has so little actual biodiesel in it that government standards consider it merely an additive.
But what about the county mechanics? They rebelled against the fuel at precisely the time Pacific Biodiesel was getting global publicity. What was going on?
“The mechanics never wanted to run biodiesel in the first place,” King said. “When they started having ‘troubles’ I asked them what they were. A guy at one of the baseyards said there was an old truck with goop in the tank. I offered to take a look, but he said they’d already cleaned it out. What stuff were they seeing? I couldn’t find anything.”
King may not have been able to find anything, but county memoranda reviewed by Maui Time listed a half dozen separated incidents of Public Works trucks requiring fuel system repairs—problems the mechanics insisted never occurred when the vehicles were using petroleum diesel.
A U.S. Department of Energy paper titled Biodiesel Performance, Costs, and Use, written by Anthony Radich, briefly touches on the fuel’s potential to cause engine clogs.
“The initial use of B20 or B100 in any vehicle or machine requires care,” Radich wrote. “Petroleum diesel forms deposits in vehicular fuel systems, and because biodiesel can loosen those deposits, they can migrate and clog fuel lines and filters.”
In June 2004, five European fuel injector manufacturers—Delphi, Bosch, Siemens VDO, Denso and Stanadyne—signed a “Common Position Statement” on biofuels. The document makes clear that biodiesel carries with it potential problems—especially if a vehicle sits for a period of time.
“Tests have shown that fuel deterioration can take place in the fuel supply and in the vehicle fuel system,” read the statement. “Fuel ageing is accelerated in the presence of heat, oxygen, water, metal ions and other impurities. The products of oxidative ageing have been shown to be corrosive… Aged or poor quality FAME contains organic acids like formic and acetic acids and acids of higher molecular weight as well as polymerization products which attack many components, drastically reducing the service life of the FIE [fuel injection equipment].”
For that reason, King recommended that the County of Maui not pour biodiesel into its emergency generators or anything else that doesn’t run for an extended period of time.
“Biodiesel is three to five times more stable than regular diesel—in the lab,” King said. “But in the field, if you store it in plastic or certain steel tanks, it could have a problem and degrade in the tank.”
But there’s also evidence that biodiesel might have caused problems in engines that ran constantly.
Recently, Kahului-based SpeediShuttle complained to Pacific Biodiesel of power losses associated with its B100 use. According to owner Cecil Morton, his company ran 10 Mercedes Benz Sprinters on B100 approximately 200,000 miles in just a few months.
“I’m just disappointed,” said Morton. “I really wanted to contribute to the environment,” he said. “It was cost effective, but we experienced loss of power and water in the fuel.”
Though King and his wife insisted that they always warn new customers of potential issues—they showed me a couple checklists they said they give customers warning them to regularly clean fuel filters, keep the fuel tank full to avoid condensation and avoid cold starts and stops—Morton said no one at Pacific Biodiesel ever warned him about potential power losses caused by water condensing in the tank.
In response, King said that water condensation in the tank is a concern, but added that he hasn’t seen anything so serious that it would cause engine problems.
“Biodiesel will absorb moisture out of the air,” King said. “We’ve been doing this a long time. Are we accumulating water in the tank? I opened a lot of tanks [to see]. The Volkswagen that had the most water had a quarter of a teaspoon. That was a B20 customer. I’ve found no water in the B100.”
Despite his problems, Morton said he wants his vehicles to burn a clean, environmentally friendly fuel. He also wants to go back to using biodiesel.
“King would like to bring me back on,” Morton said. “I’m just waiting for him to move forward.”
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By no means does everyone who uses biodiesel experience trouble. King said he’s got about 500 customers, and only “a couple” have complained to him of trouble. Shaun Stenshol, who runs the Bio-Beetle car rental agency (which distributes Maui Time Weekly issues) and Maui Recycling Service, both of which use biodiesel, was effusive in praise for the fuel.
“BioBeetle has never had an issue,” he said. “On Maui we have 12 cars—four Beetles, five Golfs, two Jettas and the Jeep Liberty. B100 is all they run on. We only use biodiesel, and there are no issues.”
But Stenshol said a couple of his Maui Recycling trucks have had problems. His 2004 Ford truck had to have all eight of its fuel injectors replaced on three separate occasions. Stenshol said the truck in question has had engine concerns, but Ford blamed the problems on biodiesel.
“Ford refused to tell me how biodiesel caused that problem,” Stenshol said. “If it caused a problem, they should know how it caused a problem. But they just said no.”
Stenshol added that Maui Recycling’s 1989 Isuzu truck also needed new fuel lines, but he said he expected that because of the vehicle’s age.
“Some of the older vehicles have fuel lines that aren’t compatible,” said King. “Some new vehicles, too. Certain types of rubber aren’t compatible with vegetable-based products.”
King’s wife Kelly, who handles Pacific Biodiesel’s marketing, said the company sells biodiesel-compatible hoses to customers for $2 a foot.
Many customers, Bob King said, simply don’t realize that diesel engines—even one that consumes petroleum-based fuel—are different than gasoline engines. For instance, he said customers are sometimes surprised to learn that changing fuel filters is a regular requirement.
“In the diesel business, we change fuel filters every time we change the oil,” King said. “I’m recommending changing the filter no more than every 10,000 miles. It kind of depends on the service of the vehicle.”
Kelly King added that the company has recently started hosting regular “TDI Days,” when customers can come in and learn about maintenance like replacing filter changes and reading diagnostic codes.
Microbial growth, another complaint county Public Works mechanics used to justify their revolt, is another problem apparently universal to diesel fuels.
“It’s really bacteria and fungus, not algae,” said King. “You kill it in the factory, then it grows in the tank farm. We use biocide, then they get immune. They’re very hearty bugs.”
King said his company is considering putting a microbe-killing biocide in the fuel, but hasn’t come to a conclusion yet. “We’ve been testing and we’re not comfortable with the results,” he said. “Often it can cause more problems than it solves.”
King added that in the early days, biodiesel was free of microbial growth, but acknowledged that the “free time is over now.” He said he lacked sufficient data to say whether biodiesel supported more bacterial growth than petroleum-based fuel.
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Alleged problems don’t seem confined to Maui. Minnesota was the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring B2 biodiesel. But fuel system clogs there became so bad in late 2005 that state officials stopped fueling with biodiesel for three weeks so the provider could find out what was wrong. Fuel suppliers blamed the bitter cold weather, but when they were done, investigators concluded that “off-spec” biodiesel was at least partially the culprit.
“Although investigations have indicated that other factors unrelated to biodiesel may have led to at least some of the filter plugging reports in Minnesota, there’s no question that off-spec biodiesel can have a severe reaction in cold weather, even in low blends,” National Biodiesel Board (NBB) Technical Director Steve Howell said in a NBB press release. “There’s no room for poor quality biodiesel in the marketplace.”
The issue of how to achieve high quality biodiesel is far from resolved. In the June 2004 Common Position Statement from the five European fuel injector manufacturers, meeting fuel quality standards was so important they put it in bold letters: “In order to reduce the risk of premature failure of the fuel system, FAME must conform to EN 14214 [a European biofuel standard].”
In the U.S., the NBB has long asked that all biodiesel manufacturers achieve BQ-9000 accreditation. Not quite an industry standard—few manufacturers actually adhere to it—BQ 9000 is nonetheless the only current standard in the American biodiesel industry.
To achieve it, a manufacturer’s fuel must meet the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) D 6751 standard—not a guarantee there will be no problems, but certainly a way to bring better quality fuel to consumers. Indeed, while many engine manufacturers refuse to honor warranties if customers choose to start filling their tanks with biodiesel, many have agreed that B20 fuel meeting the ASTM D 6751 standard won’t void a warranty.
“An ASTM standard is not easily achieved,” says NBB press materials. “Some standards can take over 10 years to gain agreement and be issued by ASTM… ASTM fuel standards are the minimum accepted values for properties of the fuel to provide adequate customer satisfaction and/or protection.”
Pacific Biodiesel is not BQ 9000 accredited. When asked why, King said his company regularly sends fuel samples to a private lab for testing. He also criticized BQ 9000 itself.
“I don’t think BQ 9000 is a good program,” he said. “The problem is you pay money, get accreditation and test. There are six to eight tests, which can be done in as little as a week, and then you don’t have to test again for two years. You could change the feedstock and not have to test.”
King insisted that he’s looking into coming up with his own fuel quality standard. But he couldn’t say when that would happen.
“It’s so frustrating,” said King of the complaints he hears. “It’s just driving me up the wall. One [customer] said the car was giving problems. The problem was he hadn’t driven it in six months. All in all, I’ve got to say we’re having extremely good luck with this fuel.” MTW
*This sentence originally included an incorrect description of biodiesel