As part of our continuing “This Girl Is On Fire” campaign, we conducted an interview with Emergency Room doctor and Midlands Biofuel CEO Dr. Beth Renwick.
Dr. Beth Renwick is majority owner of Midlands Biofuels. She graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and currently practices at Lexington Medical Center Emergency Room. In addition to being an ER doctor, Beth is the CEO at Midlands Biofuels and cracks the whip to keep all of the “Midlands Biofuelers” in line. She handles the taxes, books, and strategic planning at the plant.
What is biodiesel and how much of it do you make?
Biodiesel is a renewable fuel produced from local waste vegetable oil that can be used to power any diesel engine without modifications. Benefits of biodiesel versus petroleum-based diesel are better efficiency, engine lubricity, and decreased emissions. It is also sustainable, nontoxic, nonflammable, and easy to use. Bio is ready to go and can be mixed in any concentration with petrol diesel right in your fuel tank.
Midlands Biofuels produces 25,000 gallons of biodiesel per month, and we sell it in blends of B5, B40, and B100 (B5 = 5% bio and 95% petro diesel, B40 = 40% bio and 60% petro, etc). That 25,000 can be spread out over a large volume of fuel, depending which blend the customer prefers.
What does it mean for Midlands Biofuels to be the first woman-owned biodiesel company in the United States?
Its all about diversity. I like the idea of breaking boundaries and doing something unexpected. The majority of Emergency Medicine physicians are male also. Its empowering for this business to evolve and succeed despite many changes – ownership, dropping fuel prices, and expired federal and tax alternative fuel credits. Being at the helm is simultaneously rewarding and stress-provoking. We have 6 full time employees, so there’s added pressure knowing that we’re providing a living for those families too. I’m just trying to embrace the challenges!
What is like to be an emergency room doctor and also the CEO of a fast growing business not directly related to healthcare?
The bio plant is a continual learning experience that requires flexibility. The Emergency Room is filled with protocols and prerogatives — If this occurs, then these are the steps to take in order. A controlled environment.
The Bio business is less formal and provides more room for brainstorming and creativity. I thoroughly enjoy the work and the freedom from agendas. The contrast between the two jobs keeps it stimulating.
How did a medical doctor get involved with making biodiesel?
By default! My husband started home brewing bio in our garage when I was in residency training; subsequently he and a business partner started Midlands in August 2008. After the partnership dissolved someone had to step up to fulfill the financial responsibilities. As a child of 2 math professors, numbers have always made sense, so I tackled the books in Feb 2013 and haven’t looked back. Joe and I considered searching for another partner, but realized that we pretty much had the perfect team: Joe does day to day operations, marketing, oversight of waste veggie oil collections and fuel production, keeps customers happy, acquires new oil accounts, and arranges fuel sales. I keep us on the straight and narrow with budgeting, payroll, taxes, and compliance.
How did you meet your husband Joe?
We met through a mutual friend while I was a second year medical student. During our first date I thought, now this is a man I could marry. Joe has always been an entrepreneur – he owned a landscaping company since the age of 15, followed by an SAT prep course, and now he’s BioJoe.
Does being the CEO at the company where your husband also works create problems?
Surprisingly not! The only downside is that sometimes it seems like the discussion about work never ends; the rule at the house is no bio-talk after 10pm. The business gives us another opportunity to be on each other’s team. The more I understand about plant operations, the more productive conversations we can have about problem shooting, product development, and goal setting. Having a business partner is very much like a marriage – a legally binding agreement to work together for a single purpose. If anything the strength of our personal relationship has bolstered our work performance.
The stressful, but empowering part, is knowing that if we don’t agree, that the final decision is mine to make. I tend to make more calculated choices, and Joe can get caught up in the tide of excitement. We agree on 99%, and luckily I haven’t had to pull rank on him yet!
What nonbiodiesel things do you and your husband Joe do?
We have a huge vegetable garden and love to cook tasty organic meals. We enjoy anything outside: fishing, hiking, boating, golf, and floating down the river. We play on a recreational kickball team for the city of Columbia.
A change of scenery is always welcome. Favorite places to travel are Asheville, Charleston, and Hilton Head. Snowboarding in the winter is a blast too!
We work out together in the mornings and have run several 5k and 10k races — we even trained and ran a 1/2 marathon.
Never read it. I am however, aware of it and know a lot of people that were influenced by it. I am currently reading Biodiesel Power, by Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels.
I also toured the Piedmont Biofuels plant in Pittsboro, NC a few years ago. Have you or Joe ever been there?
Yes! We do a lot of business with them. Piedmont helped us design our plant. We have enjoyed years of a great working relationship with them, and Joe just returned 2 wks ago from their annual Collective Biodiesel Conference.
Midland Biofuels just graduated from the University of South Carolina Technology Incubator Program. How was the program and what is different now that you have graduated?
Early on in our first year of business they helped us get “plugged” into the school’s various academic departments. We got help from the Moore School of Business and the Mechanical Engineering Department. Over the years we have had about 40 interns from USC. We collect their cooking oil and they run the Biodiesel we produce from their fryer waste in their on-campus diesel buses and grounds equipment. Needless to say we have gotten a lot of help from USC over the years and are grateful for their assistance and partnership.
Your company has worked with NASA engineers to come up with Boilerless Technology™. What is that?
To make Biodiesel you need heat and a lot of it! Heat is used to purify the waste oil we collect as well as heat the chemical reaction to convert the veggie oil into Biodiesel. In addition, we also use heat to distill excess methanol from the reacted biodiesel. Simply put HEAT is a big deal. So when designing an efficient biodiesel process we looked into what was currently on the market and decided there had to be a better way to heat. Traditional boilers were expensive to buy, cost a fortune to install, and can be dangerous to operate. We looked into electric, natural gas, propane, wood pellet, biomas, and solar. What we came up with was a modified version of a natural gas tankless water heater. We found a SC manufacturer willing to do the R&D to design a unit that could produce the heat we needed on demand. That was 6 years ago and we still use these heaters in the plant today. The NASA engineers did all the number crunching and theory testing to back up the idea. They also consulted with us about the heating process and how to make the most of the BTU heat produced. We were able to trademark this as “Boilerless Technology”; it provided heat @ 230F and allowed us to run our entire process. These temperatures had never been reached or sustained before this project. The big news is that the system cost about 1/10th as much as a typical boiler system and also cost about 1/2 as much to run it. We now run a boiler that is fueled by the waste veggie oil we collect. This helps reduce the amount of natural gas we consume. Since the new veggie oil fired boiler was installed 8 months ago we have almost eliminated our natural gas use.
A study shows that children who ride a diesel school bus may be exposed to up to four times more toxic diesel exhaust than someone traveling in a car directly in front of it. It also found that excess exhaust levels on school buses were 23 to 46 times higher than levels considered to be a significant cancer risk according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and federal guidelines. As a medical doctor and a biodiesel supplier, do have anything to say about petroleum diesel toxicity?
Petro-Diesel wasn’t made to be eco-friendly, it was made to produce power. Biodiesel on the other hand was designed to do both.
With over 80% less emissions and equal power production it is an advanced biofuel! Helping us all to breathe better and ride just as far if not further on a tank of fuel. Many of our fuel customers swear they get better mileage running Biodiesel in their vehicles.
Biodiesel produces 48% less carbon monoxide and particular matter and 75-85% less carcinogens than regular diesel. Safer for children and a reassurance to parents.*
The world needs to keep actively searching for more alternative, environmentally friendly fuel sources.
Would you like people to know about you?
I’m fearless and dedicated, and strive to find balance between work and play.
The keys to running a successful business are motivation, time management, and a reliable team of professionals to guide you. A little organization doesn’t hurt either. Ultimately its impossible to excel without dedicated employees, new ideas, and an open mind. No woman is an island.