Potential exists to turn state’s renewable-energy needs into a cash crop
Hawaiian Electric Co.’s search for long-term suppliers of biofuels derived from local feedstocks stands to ignite a new form of agriculture in Hawaii.
But major challenges lie ahead for both the utility and potential producers.
Acres of fallow pineapple and sugar fields across the state potentially could be converted to high-oil-yielding plants such as jatropha, soybean and microalgae.
The utility says it is interested in buying enough biofuels to run its power plants on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and the Big Island.
Clean-burning biofuels are attractive to HECO because they can be used in its existing generators, which currently run on liquid fossil fuels including bunker oil and diesel.
“We’ve talked and talked about biodiesel in Hawaii, and now we can guarantee that we’ll purchase their products down the road, so we’re looking for people to make proposals,” said HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg. “If we’re going to get to the state’s mandate of 40 percent renewables by 2030, which is just 20 years away, a chunk of that will have to come from biofuels. The best situation would be one where the feedstocks are grown here.”
But, while HECO is taking the initial step by requesting proposals, biofuel crops remain largely uncharted territory for Hawaii farmers.
“For landowners and potential farmers, they are waiting for proof of concept both with respect to an energy crop and a conversion process,” said Stephanie Whalen, executive director of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center in Wahiawa. “Bottom line is, they need to know what is the efficiency and economics of a biofuel crop. Until that’s known, there will be limited, if any, farm production of a biofuel crop.”
Whalen said the nonprofit center has been doing limited research on biofuel crops over the past three years, including testing jatropha seeds from India, Madagascar, Mexico and Honduras.
“We’ve done some preliminary studies on jatropha as far as water needs and spacing trials, and we’re trying to identify some of the better-producing strains,” Whalen said. “But we don’t have data on harvest yields and input costs.
“It’s complicated for the growers since there is little or no local data on energy crops,” she said. “It’s great that the end users are taking the steps to pull the process by offering [requests for proposals] — that definitely is a necessary component of the system — but the system needs the converter and the producer to make it all work.”
Rosegg said HECO plans to set up a Web site to help facilitate the bidding process.
“We will shortly establish an online bulletin board at heco.com so all elements of the value chain — land owners, agricultural interests, biofuel processors and transporters — can seek partners to put together the best bid possible,” he said. “We are seeking long-term contracts so everyone in the biofuel value chain is confident of our commitment to give preference to local product, to buy all that is available at agreed prices and volumes before we even consider looking out of state to augment supplies, and that we are prepared to pay a premium for local biofuels.”
Biodiesel can be manufactured from vegetable oils, nuts and crops, as well as from animal waste. Raw oil extracted from plants needs to be refined into biodiesel.
Two Hawaii companies, both with operations on the Big Island, have a head start on the competition in finding the solution to HECO’s needs. One has been growing jatropha plants for the past two years; the other has been cultivating microalgae for the past four years.
Kona coffee farmer Christian Twigg-Smith and his son, James, launched Hawaii Pure Plant Oil in 2008 to grow jatropha, a tropical crop native to the Caribbean that is being used in India, the Philippines and in Brazil to make biodiesel. They have planted approximately 300 acres of the hardy trees, which produce seeds containing between 27 percent and 40 percent oil, on former sugar and papaya land in Keaau.
“Some are doing really well, others not as much,” said Christian Twigg-Smith. “That’s the typical farmer’s plight, figuring out what they like and going from there. This plant definitely likes heat and lower elevations.”
Twigg-Smith said he initially looked into jatropha as a way to produce eco-friendly fuel to run trucks and equipment for his Blue Sky Coffee farm.
“Sustaining our own vehicles is part of it,” he said. “The other part is that somebody’s got to figure this out. If nobody does it, we’ll never know. We’re interested in taking it through to production-level farming and expanding to the full 1,000 acres we’ve leased. I believe it will be viable in the years to come.”
Twigg-Smith said that because the company has gone through only two harvesting seasons, and does not have a potential buyer lined up, he hasn’t determined how much money the farm can make growing jatropha.