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Maui is a beautiful island, and Shaun Stenshol is working to keep it that way.
Last fall, I needed to go to Maui for a project I'm working on and, while I was there, I needed to rent a car. I had heard about the Maui-based biodiesel car rental company Bio-Beetle, but knew that I couldn't pass up the chance to test it out myself. I made a reservation, and when Stenshol came to pick me up at the airport (Bio-Beetle does not have an airport counter), I told him that I'd like to ask him some questions, and not the "So, what's cool around here?" type. He agreed, and I learned a lot about how biodiesel is leaving its mark on thousands of tourists, residents and the other living creatures on the Valley Isle.
Bio-Beetle rents more than Volkswagen bugs, but the New Beetle jumpstarted Stenshol from his activist lifestyle (he worked with Green Peace for many years) to businessman. And not your typical businessman, either. When Stenshol is founded Bio-Beetle in 1998, biodiesel on Maui cost $2.54 a gallon, about 60 cents more than a gallon of regular unleaded. But Stenshol used it anyway. And, with a dozens of vehicles on Maui and at the Bio-Beetle Los Angeles office (and there's a Big Island office coming this year), it doesn't seem to have done him or his business any harm.
Today, Stenshol runs Bio-Beetle with his partner Pam. The price of biodiesel, made in Hawaii by Pacific Biodiesel (and you know they've been in the business for a while – they were able to snag the biodiesel.com URL), is not tied to petroleum and there is very little fluctuation. In fact the pump price only changes once a year or so (and, curse my luck, the day I needed to refill the tank was the day the price per gallon had shot up 25 cents).
If you don't read the entire interview, one thing Stenshol said bears taking away. He is active in an online discussion forum for Volkswagen fans, tdiclub.com, and said it's repeated over and over on that site that using any biodiesel blend over B5 voids your warranty, but this is just not true. Read on if you want to know why.
BTW - There was no quid-pro-quo involved here. I paid full price for the rental and the only difference between the service I had and what you'd get was thirty minutes extra sitting in the Bio-Beetle office and talking. I get the feeling Stenshol'd be happy to sit with any customer and talk biodiesel. But if you can't make it to Maui any time soon, read the interview...
ABG: Have you ever made your biodiesel?
Stenshol: No. Just use it. I've been lucky. I moved here in January '97. Pacific Biodiesel started making biodiesel in December '96. I learned about biodiesel the year before in Austin, Texas which is where I moved here from and but I didn't even know they existed when I moved here and I couldn't believe it. Maui, of all places. I wanted to support them because they're the ones stepping out commercially.
ABG: So what made you think to rent biodiesel cars?
Stenshol: The idea came from the fact that there is heavy tourism here and so I though, why not have rental with biodiesel rental cars. And in 1998 Volkswagen reintroduced the Beetle and they offered it with a diesel engine and when I found out I was like "Bio-Beetle". It's just a catchy name.
ABG: Are most of the cars you rent here Beetles?
Stenshol: No. Most of them are not Beetles. They're mostly Jettas now. We just bought six cars in the last two weeks – five Jettas and one Beetle and then a couple – two or three months ago we bought five Jettas – it's [2006 has] been a big year for us. We got 20 cars this year. In LA it's – phew – we have eight cars so that makes six Jettas, a Beetle and a Passat. And here we have three Golfs here and a Jeep Liberty.
ABG: If you bought 20 cars this year that obviously implies a lot of growth, spanning from here to Los Angeles and looking at the big island and going back to Oahu. Can you sort of talk to me about how it's been going?
Stenshol: Well, the sheer numbers of reservation days just keep going up and up every month. The trend is way up and I'd say we're gonna have, by the end of next year  we'll probably have up to three more offices open and that would include the Big Island. Maybe Oahu, it just depends on certain factors, you know mainly investors. We pay a lot more money than the other rental car companies for our cars.
ABG: And why is that?
Stenshol: Because they're diesels and they're rarer. You know Volkswagen is not making 'em any more for at least a year in the US. So we're gonna go a year where we're not going to be able to buy new cars, which you know how many rental car companies can say that?
ABG: And it comes at a time when you need 'em if you're growing.
Stenshol: Well we need 'em and the fuel prices are high, although they've come down, but these cars sell at a premium because of what they are. They're diesels, they get high fuel economy and they can run on biodiesel. So they got three factors that jack up their price. I mean it's amazing what these cars sell for in California; you can't buy 'em new in California.
ABG: You said there may be four more offices or three more offices open. Are they also in California or Hawaii?
Stenshol: One more in California and then maybe Texas.
ABG: So it may be a little easier to get 'em in Texas maybe.
Stenshol: It is but you know, for the next year we're gonna be buying used cars mostly. I mean they'll probably be still a few new ones available but not many. We got a car dealer friend of ours is looking into importing. Not really for Volkswagen, necessarily, but for other models. We would love to have SMART cars. I mean holy cow, 70 miles a gallon. Small, two-seaters. I mean it'd be awesome. But you know, gas.
ABG: If you're looking at Hawaii, California, and Texas for expansion, those are obviously warm climates. Is there any thought that when you do go into – if you ever got into like Minnesota or something thinking about you know how you'd handle winters?
Stenshol: Well, we've thought about it in terms of Seattle and Portland, because those are great places to do it. But they have cold weather issues that we don't deal with here or even LA or San Francisco and so we might have to have heated systems. Maybe it'd be seasonal. Now that we're establishing on the mainland if we open up in a northern climate maybe in the winter we ship all our cars to Los Angeles, not that that's ideal or anything.
ABG: Things that you have to think about that other car rentals don't. The people who are running the one in Los Angeles, how did you hook up with them?
Stenshol: An old, dear friend of mine from my activist days. We met at the Nevada nuclear test site protesting – you know we used to blow up nuclear bombs in Nevada? They complain about North Korea but we did it as recently as '91 – we met out there and he's just a good friend of ours and he manages it for us whereas the Big Island will be some sort of business partnership.
ABG: You attract people who are interested in what you do?
Stenshol: The attention we get from people when we go tabling at events and all the media, I mean, when we did our grand opening in LA. It was a media zoo. It was unbelievable. I mean it was great. I mean international press, Paul Harvey talking to us. I mean it was like, "Whoa, holy cow." People see it as something very different. You know it's actually something that could be long term into the future because it's a renewable fuel. Those hybrids are great but you know gas hybrids are still running on gas. I want to buy a diesel hybrid so bad.
ABG: You get your biodiesel from Pacific Biodiesel so do you know what they make their biodiesel out of?
Stenshol: Well on Maui it's almost all made from used cooking oil. They have a very mature system for collecting the used cooking oil. The county supported it. It supported it from the beginning. But they have shipped in some tallow, some animal fat. We don't like that. Me and my partner, Pam, are vegans for animal-rights reasons and our goal is pure vegetable-based organic biodiesel. Our long-term goal is to have our own plant where we're making our own fuel. It'll probably be in Southern California somewhere.
ABG: What do you have to do for maintenance with the biodiesel?
Stenshol: The only difference, outside the manufactured suggested maintenance intervals, is that we change the fuel filter more frequently on the newer cars and it's not apparent why that's necessary and it's not always necessary. I think the engines are so high tech they have less tolerance for any really minor changes. For warranty work we go to the dealers here and LA we do most the oil changes in house. Sometimes I'll take them over to the shop if I don't have time. For cars that are out of warranty we have a couple mechanics we can call.
ABG: I thought that the dealers didn't like to warranty cars that were running on anything more than like B5 or B20.
Stenshol: It's not that. The only way it could void the warranty is if you had a fuel-related problem. You can't just void the warranty. What if your window switch breaks? I've heard of people having warranties declined because of biodiesel, but we've never been declined warranty for the bio – with Volkswagen. With our one Jeep we were declined once, but it turned out the fix was replacing the fuel filter. Unfortunately our local dealer couldn't even think of that. I mean they actually said the fix was to stop using biodiesel.
ABG: Dealers and mechanics aren't that familiar with biodiesel, it seems.
Stenshol: Like with these new Volkswagens. We don't – you know the most miles we have on any of these new Volkswagens – new meaning 2004 – is almost 23,000 miles. There's other people out there with more miles on the same engine on biodiesel but um there's a very few places or a very few individuals or companies that strictly use 100 percent biodiesel year round. I mean there's a lot of people that use B100 or B99.9 or whatever and then in the winter they go to a 50/50 or a 20 percent blend. I ran into our dealer tech the other day. I've been working with him for a long time now and he told me the 2008s Volkswagen is actually gonna put a sticker on them saying no bio diesel at all because the injection pressure is so high that it's gonna dissolve the fuel before it gets into the engine. I mean, this is the VW mechanic, the dealer mechanic's telling me something that's just totally false. So we don't know what 2008's gonna be. It's gonna be an experiment for us, but we're gonna buy one anyway. That's what I told them. I said we're gonna buy one anyway. That's what I did with these other cars and they run it. The naysayers are unbelievable sometimes. In that sense you have to have tunnel vision. You've got to ignore what these people are saying.