Everything about Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. has its roots in past necessity. That became clear during a HC&S tour.
Weeds? Develop “bunch cane.” The kapakahi stalks grow every which way, denying any weed even a bit of sunlight. Destructive insects? Develop cane that resists the pests.
A shallow lens of fresh water on gallons of salty groundwater? Develop – in 1910 – a skimmer well so unique the U.S. Geological Survey refers to it as the “Maui Well.”
The 25-passenger van carried Rotarians from Kihei, members of the Court Stenographers and Captioners Association, a scribbler, corporate Community Relations Manager Linda Howe and Mae Nakahata, HC&S agronomist and Big Island girl who has called Maui home for 25 years. (E kala mai, Mae, for getting your home address wrong in last week’s column.)
After watching a double-snout machine harvest a seed field, the van ran down lumpy asphalt cane-haul roads to a field near the airport. Custom hydraulic cranes grabbed great mouthfuls of cane from windrows shoved together by bulldozers.
The Brobdingnagian claws sometimes drop abandoned vehicles into the 50-ton Tourna haulers. Nakahata said many of the unscheduled cane fires are the result of stolen cars being set ablaze.
More cane-haul roads. Above Paia, a kid is spotted riding a dirt bike. “Get a picture of the license plate,” said Howe, even though dirt bikes are seldom registered. The kid scooted up the haul road. “It’s a matter of safety,” Howe said. No contest between a speeding Tourna hauler and a civilian vehicle.
The van comes to a stop at a locked, bright yellow pipe gate standing between the tour and the Kaheka hydroelectric plant built in 1924. The concrete building sits in a gulch below the old Kaheka Camp. The turbines are half-round lumps sitting in a row.
Until a couple of years ago, the windows were blacked out. The plant and another hydroelectric plant built closer to Paia in 1912 were considered essential during World War II. Blind windows kept light from giving the enemy a target. The plants use water from the irrigation system stretching into East Maui. In a concrete ditch shaded by an African tulip tree, the water was only a few inches deep, more than enough for a school of foot-long tilapia.
The last stop on the field tour was a pump station. Once it was powered by a steam engine sitting in a building walled by cut-coral blocks. Electricity does the job today. Right out of a tunnel, the cool water is inviting. It’s been a hot, dusty ride.
Eighteen skimmer wells in Central Maui are tunnels tapping the freshwater lens on top of salty groundwater. The groundwater is recharged by rain and water seeping down from the irrigation systems.
Nakahata says the round red tanks on the edge of fields are filters. They are solar powered and remove dirt and sand that would clog drip-irrigation lines. Silver tanks contain fertilizer.
Back to Puunene. Last morsels of lunch were being washed down by ice-cold drinks when Lee Jakeway gave a statistics-loaded presentation: sugar (7,000 tons milled each day), energy (burning 1 ton of bagasse equals using one barrel of oil), bagasse (550,000 tons a year) and molasses (41,700 tons last year). The company is a $100 million-a-year operation.
Other comments: HC&S produced about 6 percent of Maui’s electricity last year. The juice is sold to Maui Electric for 13.7 cents per megawatt hour. The U.S. Navy is working with the company to develop biofuel from sugar, bagasse and organic trash for its ships and airplanes.
The group was split in two with Jakeway and Ken Nakama, a one-time Maui Land & Pineapple Co. cannery engineer, leading the tour through the sweltering, noisy mill.
The “factory” built in 1909 is a heat sink with tiny air-conditioned offices sporting banks of video screens and computer controls. On all four levels, there are piles of old parts and ranks of welding tanks. Three centrifuges installed when the mill was built continue to spin. Giant, grease-slathered gears turn largely hidden conveyor belts. Whew!
HC&S conducts tours for the public about once a month. Details and applications are available on its website.