Kermit the Frog has always said it’s not easy being green. But what about driving green? On the Hawaiian island of Maui, driving green is not only easy, it holds marketing value. No, we’re not talking about such widely available hybrid cars as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius. Maui Car Rentals has the Bio-Beetle, a 2000 Volkswagen Beetle that runs on biodiesel, a fuel processed from vegetable oil salvaged from local restaurants. Since the car was purchased in July 2002, it’s been a customer favorite that continues to pique public interest.

The Bio-Beetle rental car resulted from a partnership between Rick Tholen, president of Maui Car Rentals, and Shaun Stenshol, owner and operator of Maui Recycling Service.

Spreading the Word
Tholen’s interest in biodiesel as a fuel for his rental cars dates back 20 years — when he first learned about the fuel. But Tholen didn’t ever act on his interest until Stenshol approached him with the idea of adding the Bio-Beetle to the rental fleet.

“It seemed like a great idea,” says Tholen. “We were able to put together a partnership, and we now have one car on the road and we’re hoping to put out more.”

Stenshol learned about biodiesel while employed at the Greenpeace office in Austin, Texas. When he moved to Maui, he didn’t want to own or operate a car that ran on fossil fuels, so for several years he went without a car. But by the time he met Tholen, he had already owned two biodiesel vehicles, an ’81 Volkswagen Rabbit pickup and a 2000 Volkswagen Goff.

“I’d been wanting to supply the rental car so that the general public had the opportunity to use a biodiesel car without having to buy one,” Stenshol says. [PAGEBREAK]

The two business owners share the job of marketing the Bio-Beetle, which is done primarily through the Internet.

“Both of our companies have Web sites and we basically linked the two sites to promote the Bio-Beetle to our clients,” says Tholen. “We’ve got 60 cars on the road. I’d say about 75% to 80% of our business comes from visitors here in Maui and it’s done mostly through the Internet.”

Even without the Internet, the Bio-Beetle promotes itself — and Maui Car Rentals — whenever it’s on the road. Signs on both doors of the car proclaim it is “powered by 100% recycled vegetable oil.” And who would pass on the opportunity to discuss a rental car that runs on the same stuff used to make French fries?

Dollars and Sense
In addition to being environmentally friendly, the Bio-Beetle also features a Turbo diesel engine, five-speed manual transmission, sunroof, AM/FM cassette, dual airbags and A/C.

So what’s the weekly rate?

“It costs $199 plus tax per week to rent the Bio-Beetle, and that’s comparable to our Ford Mustang, which is our most expensive rental,” says Tholen. And profits?

“When all is said and done, we’re really not making a profit on the car. We’re in it to promote the vehicle and the idea of sustainable energies,” Tholen says. [PAGEBREAK]

Tholen and Stenshol are looking into ways to expand their business idea and to get more biodiesel cars on the road. The Bio-Beetle won’t become a profitable rental vehicle until that happens. The problem is, diesel models suitable to buy and turn into biodiesel cars are scarce, says Tholen. And they’re expensive.

Maui Car Rentals buys and rents cars, mainly Toyotas, which are two to three years old. New Volkswagen Beetles are more pricey.

“They’re $13,000 to $15,000 cars,” says Tholen. “So for us to add them to our fleet is expensive, especially when we can buy three or four regular rental cars for the cost of one Beetle.”

Still, for Tholen and Stenshol, purchasing cars that can run off biodiesel makes plenty of sense. “Biodiesel has a slightly lower energy content,” says Stenshol. “New VW diesels can get 40 miles to the gallon and up to 50 on the highway [(550-600 miles per tank)]. So it’s cheaper to run than gas.”

Pumping companies in Maui, such as Suck ’Em Up Pumping, haul used cooking oil from restaurants directly to the Pacific Biodiesel plant at the central Maui landfill. There, the vegetable oil is converted into biodiesel. [PAGEBREAK]

“It goes through a chemical process called transesterification,” Stenshol explains. “Methanol and lye are mixed together into the vegetable oil and then agitated for approximately an hour. Once the chemicals settle, the glycerin and Methol Esterin settle and separate. The glycerin sinks to the bottom, and the Methol Esterin floats to the top.”

Methol Esterin is also known as biodiesel. The fuel is biodegradable, nontoxic and poses little or no threat to the environment.

A few hoses or fuel lines are usually the only modifications necessary when substituting biodiesel for regular diesel. New VWs don’t need any modification at all. Biodiesel is also covered under engine warranties.

Consumer Response
The Bio-Beetle has certainly stirred customer curiosity. “We’re getting a lot of responses,” says Tholen. “We’re getting people who are inquiring for four or five months down the road.”

The Bio-Beetle’s first renter, a tourist from California, was familiar with the technology and had actually owned a biodiesel car, says Tholen. But many have never owned or rented a biodiesel car, and are genuinely interested in driving one.

“Generally, we’re finding that people are environmentally minded. They’re interested in the Bio-Beetle, they know a little about it, and they’re just calling us for additional information,” says Tholen.

People realize the multiple benefits of the product and its impact on society, says Stenshol. “There are so many levels where you win,” he says. “You’re supporting local companies, local farmers. You’re creating local jobs and you’re cleaner on the environment.”