Maui environmental groups are organizing a letter-writing campaign to persuade Hawaiian Electric Co. and the state government to head off plans to import palm oil from Malaysia to be used in a test at Maui Electric Co.’s Maalaea power plant.
The international campaign was sparked by a German group, Rainforest-Rescue.org. Maui Tomorrow Foundation, Sierra Club Maui and the statewide group Life of the Land are protesting here in the islands.
They oppose a Public Utilities Commission decision to allow HECO to use palm oil at Campbell Industrial Park and to allow Maui Electric to test palm oil at Maalaea.
A spokesman for HECO said Tuesday: “We share a concern for the environment and human rights, which is why in 2007 Hawaiian Electric worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council to create a sustainable biofuels policy that we include in all contracts.”
HECO has signed what it calls a “very short” (two years) contract to supply its Campbell plant with fuel made from recovered animal waste on the Mainland. To get its new Campbell plant permitted, HECO had to promise to use renewable fuel.
For the Maalaea test, it contracted with Sime Darby to supply a million gallons of palm oil. It describes Sime Darby as “a highly reputable international firm based in Malaysia that is a founder of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.” (See respo.org.)
When MECO proposed to use some form of biofuel at its Waena power plant (yet to be built), the plan was to find a local source of feedstock, with a local refinery to be built by a startup called Blue Earth.
To bridge the period until Blue Earth got going and local farmers started producing something, imported palm oil was proposed.
That sparked an outcry, because plantations of the African oil palm replace natural rain forests in places like Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. In response, the international palm oil interests worked out a system with the NRDC to certify that biofuels were being produced sustainably. HECO was one of the first utilities to sign on.
However, the local environmentalists have called this “greenwashing,” and say specifically that Sime Darby is planning large palm oil expansions in Indonesia and West Africa.
Blue Earth’s refinery proposal never went forward, and other potential suppliers of biofuel also evaporated.
With local or at least American sources not available, HECO went to the PUC for permission to tap the international palm oil supply.
Henry Curtis, director of Life of the Land, intervened in the PUC hearings on HECO’s request. On Monday, he said: “Palm oil production is a human rights issue, a cultural issue and a justice issue. Hawaii should not and must not justify importing palm oil on the grounds that what happens outside our borders is irrelevant.”
Lance Holter, chairman of Sierra Club Maui, said: “The potential of using palm oil from endangered rain forests for Hawaii energy production is exactly the wrong direction for Hawaii’s clean energy future. Our islands should be powered by indigenous sources – like sun, wind and waves, not by importing another problem.”
He added, “Locally grown biofuels should be used only as transportation fuel, never for electricity.”
Maui produces two kinds of biofuel: bagasse, the residue from sugar refining, which is used by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to generate electricity; and waste cooking oil, made into motor fuel by Pacific Biodiesel.
HECO’s statement said it insists that its suppliers adhere to the sustainability policy, “with independent monitoring as confirmation.”
“The Hawaiian Electric companies believe biofuels are a part of Hawaii’s clean energy future,” HECO said. “Biofuels allow us to switch from ‘black’ to ‘green’ fuel in our existing generators, reducing dependence on and vulnerability to imported oil, protecting Hawaii’s economy and security, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
The state-mandated alternative energy policies have, to date, not produced any biofuel. HC&S and Pacific Biodiesel predate the state drive. Requirements to add ethanol to gasoline have not inspired anyone in Hawaii to produce alcohol.
HC&S investigated ethanol from sugar but, although it continues to say that its future is as an “energy plantation,” it has decided that ethanol is not the way to do it.
Kelly King, the vice president for communications and marketing at Pacific Biodiesel, said she hopes the administration of the new governor, Neil Abercrombie, will get serious about making alternative fuel, instead of talking about it.
She agrees with Holter that nonfuel sources are best for electricity. The geothermal potential on Maui is huge, she said.
Today, only Kaheawa Wind Farm produces significant amounts of electricity for MECO from nonfuel sources.
King said the idea of growing a crop just for biofuel is not going to be viable. Only a multiuse crop will be economically successful, she said Tuesday.
The feedstock for the biofuel should be a byproduct of a crop grown for other purposes, she suggests. And rather than a single crop – like jatropha, a desert plant from the American west – she suggests that a variety of crops for a variety of growing regimes should be the goal.
She said that although Pacific Biodiesel had supplied small amounts of its product to MECO that were used successfully, the request for proposal issued earlier this year did not include Pacific Biodiesel’s product in its bid specifications, she said.
She asked: “Is HECO really looking for local sources?”
Although the supply of used cooking oil is limited, Pacific Biodiesel is building a plant at Keeau on the Big Island that will use multiple feedstocks, including jatropha oil from a 260-acre farm. Its projected capacity is 2.6 million gallons per year, about the amount being demanded by the Campbell plant.
Peter Rosegg, corporate communications director at HECO, said the company’s biofuels request for proposals was written to be “as inviting and inclusive as possible, open to any kind of biofuel from any local feedstock supplied to any of our plants on any island by any company.
“We still hope Pacific Biodiesel will respond to questions about their proposal, and we are willing to work with the Kings to find solutions for them,” he said.
He said MECO had found that biodiesel burned more cleanly than petroleum diesel, but Pacific Biodiesel “withdrew their supply to us.”
HECO’s statement said: “Our goal, as part of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, remains local biofuels for local use to the extent possible. We are encouraging biofuel production from plants, algae and other sustainable sources.”
Rosegg said 10 responders to the request for proposals are moving ahead with bids to supply HECO and MECO.