Fourteen years ago, the biofuel world looked a bit different.
When Beth and Joe Renwick founded what was then called Midlands Biofuels in 2008, restaurants paid to dispose of used cooking oil, which often went to landfills. Now, the market in which Green Energy Biofuel competes requires wooing customers while making greener, more sustainable use of oil and other food waste.
“Restaurants owners, and everyone, have become more educated that there’s value in the oil, and so now it’s more of a competitive market,” said Beth Renwick, company majority owner. “You have to approach the restaurant and offer them good service and offer them premium price for their oil, or they’ll go to the next company to collect.”
Renwick, who is also an emergency room physician, and her husband started the company on a small scale spurred by necessity. After his job selling pharmaceutical drug manufacturing equipment ended when the owner of that company died, Joe Renwick began tinkering with producing biodiesel in his garage from cooking oil recycled from a restaurant in Augusta, Ga., when the Renwicks lived in North Augusta.
While Beth wrapped up her medical residency, Joe made batches of fuel, which he tested successfully in his own truck. Soon after, the Renwicks moved back to Winnsboro, where Joe’s father and grandfather had both owned businesses. Beth began working at Lexington Medical Center while Joe launched Midlands Biofuels LLC.
The burgeoning business developed innovations including boilerless technology, which heats biodiesel to more than 230 degrees, allowing for recovery of 94% of methanol after the chemical reaction at a fraction of the cost of a traditional boiler. The company soldiered on through the Great Recession and cuts in federal biodiesel production subsidies, securing a contract with U.S. Foods. The Renwicks opened a second processing plant — though both the contract and plant vanished in 2011 during an industry downturn.
After years of helping out, Beth Renwick joined the company full time in 2012 and became majority owner, making the firm the only woman-owned biodiesel company in the country.
The business’ focus broadened into a large-scale waste processor of biodiesel products, and the company changed its name to Green Energy Biofuel in 2016, when it also expanded throughout South Carolina and Tennessee. The company now operates three processing plants, processes 200,000 gallons of product daily and serves customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Louisiana and Europe while sponsoring internships and educational programs.
With increased processing came more organic food waste and water, an issue Green Energy Biofuel addressed by purchasing a composting company in order to remain landfill-free.
“The cooking oil we collect has food particles in it that we filter out and it also has water in it, and so it gives us an avenue to dispose of the solid food waste without going to the landfill and the nonhazardous water without taking it to a water disposal site,” Renwick said. “That’s enabled us to find new customers around and also offer them those same opportunities.”
Green Energy Biofuel also recently became the only S.C. business to own a depackaging machine, Renwick said.
“This is a huge piece of equipment. It helps separate expired food products from their packaging, and it separates them out into organic and nonorganic components,” she said. “You could take boxes of apple juice that were in a cardboard container and wrapped in plastic in another box and throw the whole thing in there and it would separate out so that you could recycle the packaging components on one end and then you could take the organic components to the composting plant.”
Like many small businesses, the company faced challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When people were at home, they weren’t eating out as much,” Beth Renwick said. “Maybe 500 of our restaurants closed, and the volume of oil went down, but at the same time, the value of it went up, partly due to global markets and things unrelated to the scarcity of oil. So now we’re looking at oil prices that are higher than ever — two, three, four times what they were two years ago.
“How that affects us is just our costs are higher and we have to be prepared to offer the customers more and manage our expenses and keep a tighter eye on the finances, just to make sure we’re staying profitable. … I think things are picking up, but at a slower pace. New restaurants are opening, but still not back to the number where we were.”
Renwick, who now practices medicine at an urgent care clinic, also saw the pandemic’s effects through a health care lens. The clinic where she works became a de facto acute respiratory clinic, serving patients too sick to visit a primary care physician, and running a drive-through testing clinic.
“It was scary. The unknown is frightening,” she said. “It impacted everything — working from home and virtual meetings and school. It was quite traumatic, really. I look back on it and I’m like, that was really horrible. I finally feel like we’re trying to find our way on the other side of it.”
Renwick is optimistic that the biofuel industry will continue to grow in light of national mandates such as the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires suppliers of diesel and gasoline to inject a small percentage of biofuels into their products and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the country’s dependence on non-renewable petroleum.
“We’ve worked in the past with big food manufacturers and beverage manufacturers. I think everybody’s starting to feel the heat, through mandates or through their own corporate goals of trying to get to that zero-waste place,” she said.
“We’ve got this tagline of rethinking sustainability, so I think if we can stay agile and kind of anticipate what companies are going to need, we can continue to pivot and turn and figure out how to offer a good solution, and an affordable solution, to help keep their business running and at the same time have a positive impact on the earth.”
This article first appeared in the May 16 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.