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SAN RAFAEL -- In the Dominican Republic and its troubled neighbor Haiti people whisper about a vast, untapped source of oil, mysteriously ignored by the government and foreign mining teams.

The rumor is born of constant shortages, because in truth the entire Caribbean island of Hispaniola has no oil reserves at all.

[caption id="attachment_69865" align="alignright" width="199"] Bruce Keith was born in the Dominican Republic to a father in the mining industry and a mother in the U.S. diplomatic corps.[/caption]

"Silver, gold, nickel and bauxite -- yes," said Bruce Keith (bkeith@solcapital.org), a former resident with a passion for the island. "But the Dominican Republic and Haiti have to import every drop of oil to us, and lots of it is low-grade and polluting."

He has a clean-fuel production model that would employ small farmers to grow feedstock for biodiesel. Converted in local plants and sold to both the public and private sectors, the biodiesel could eventually supply about a third of the Dominican Republic's energy needs.

The Marin entrepreneur was born in the Dominican Republic to a mining executive father and a mother who was in the diplomatic corps. Before moving to Marin County, Mr. Keith spent a number of years in Latin America building or turning around companies.

His familiarity with the Dominican Republic -- a stable though cash-strapped democracy -- its people, terrain, climate and needs has convinced Mr. Keith it's the ideal launching pad for a model that could be easily deployed in other oil-poor nations, notably Haiti.

"I call it the triple-bottom-line model, because the benefits are threefold," he said. "We have a positive social and environmental impact and create an enduring, profitable economic generator.

"The environmental advantages to having a source of clean fuel are enormous. Most of the island's electricity is produced by generators -- the energy grid is woeful -- burning low-grade fuel."

Economically, a thriving, sustainable biodiesel industry would benefit investors, farmers, factory workers, the mining industry -- now forced to import diesel for its operations at high cost -- and the government, which is solidly behind the project.

[caption id="attachment_69864" align="alignleft" width="240"] Velazquez, a poor Dominican farmer, proudly shows off his thriving plot, planted with jatropha on his own initiative.[/caption]

The model has social benefits as well. Originally small-scale farmers, the Dominican and Haitian people have migrated into cities in search of work. Drawing them back to the land to grow a cash crop would provide them with an improved and longer life.

"There's no shortage of workers on our initial plots," said Mr. Keith. "Farmers, laborers and migrant Haitian workers abound."

One land-poor farmer -- Velasquez -- was so eager to be a part of the project he has planted and tended his own plots and his neighbors' as a volunteer, just to prove himself.

The plots are planted to jatropha, a hardy native shrub that grows well in arid, deforested soil. While it takes up to five years to reach maturity, harvests begin after one year and the plant lasts for over 30 years.

Now Mr. Keith is beating the bushes for capital to build a pilot refining plant. He has partnered with the Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI), a local nonprofit organization focused on development projects, micro-loans, housing and green industries, among other endeavors.

"Basically, we want to take the IDDI model to the private sector and make it profitable," he said. "Without profits, a biodiesel industry won't be sustainable."

His five-member team is investigating various funding sources with the help of Venture Greenhouse, the green business incubator operated by Dominican University.

[caption id="attachment_69866" align="alignright" width="320"] Marin company Dominican Renewables has pilot plots planted to jatropha, a hardy, native feedstock for biodiesel.[/caption]

He estimates that angel funding of $250,000--$500,000 would build a prototype biodiesel plant and produce at least 10,000 gallons of clean fuel a month.

"Then we can approach merchant banks, the World Bank, the IFC and larger investors for a major round, say $18 million to $25 million, which would allow us to plant 30,000 hectares (about 74,000 acres), feedstock enough for 20 million gallons of biodiesel a year."

Full development of a biodiesel industry will take about $150 million, he believes. That would create a new economic driver and over 120 million gallons of biodiesel a year.

"Large up-front capital expenses are a big hurdle in launching renewable fuel companies as well as clean-tech plays in general," said Paul Bozzo, co-founder of the Venture Greenhouse. "Bruce has the right idea by starting small with a pilot plant and proving the business model, technology and market demand."

Both the Dominican government and private interests such as power generators, fuel distributors and bus companies have signed letters of intent to purchase as much clean fuel as the company can produce.

According to Clifford Detz, an energy industry veteran and founding member of Chevron Technology Ventures, Dominican Renewables has a good chance of building a sustainable clean fuel industry.

"I'm not familiar with the Dominican Republic, but the plan sounds like a worthy economic development project, certainly a real boon to the area," he said. "In the U.S., the cost of producing biodiesel is too close to the price of fuel to make the industry economically feasible without subsidies. But in a country where oil must be imported at well over $5 a gallon, the $3 a gallon it costs to produce biodiesel makes sense."

"(Mr. Keith) has gotten this far in a difficult economic environment, and that's a good sign," he said.•••

Know about an up-and-coming North Bay innovator? Submit a tip for the Innovation column to bbollinger@busjrnl.com.