Rob Parsons

Presentation to Maui County Planning Committee

February 5, 2008, 9:00am –County Council Chambers
Gladys C. Baisa, Chair
By Rob Parsons, Conservation Chair, Maui Sierra Club


Chair Baisa and Members;

Thank you for bringing forward today’s discussion on biomass energy potential and policies for Maui County. I believe we all understand the need to carefully review prospective local, renewable energy sources as we seek to shift our 90% dependence upon imported fuels, primarily petroleum, but also coal and ethanol.

I come to you today not as an expert, but as a 30-year resident dedicated to sharing what I learn about the choices we collectively face. As you know, I served four years with the County administration, addressing a wide array of issues: environmental impacts, resource conservation, eco-system protection and preservation, and much more. Towards the end of 2006, I attended the Governor’s Biofuel Summit, the Hawaii Bioenergy Workshop, and the kickoff of the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan.

Since that time, I have intensified my research on renewable energy options, and other sustainability issues, including local food security. So, what I share with you today rests on the foundation of understanding that we are critically out of balance in what we produce versus what we consume. I believe today’s discussion is a vital part of what I hope will be a broad educational inquiry into steering a course for Maui’s future that will put us back in balance with the `aina and with each other.

For the purpose of today’s discussion, we can talk about two types of biomass to energy. The first would be combusting a plant material or carbon source through a gasification process, or co-firing, such as HC&S does firing its boilers with bagasse and coal. The second would be deriving a fuel, primarily ethanol or biodiesel, from certain plant sources.

Ultimately, each of these biomass methods has impacts, and each produces emissions when the fuel source is combusted. Every type of energy production has impacts, make no mistake. Our due diligence is to accurately weigh the pros and cons, and to make decisions that consider the macro-view or big picture issues.

For instance, extracting the energy from biomass or biofuels may require putting energy in as well. In the case of HC&S, to combust their cane fiber, or bagasse, they also import 60,000 tons of coal yearly to maintain the temperatures necessary for their mill operation boilers. So, while we consider the excess energy which HC&S sells to MECO to be from a renewable source, it wouldn’t happen without importing a fossil fuel, coal.

Likewise, collecting, transporting, and stockpiling wood for a gasification plant in Kihei may prove costly if the source of the feedstock is upper Kula. And, while the prospect of clearing invasive wattle trees from Kula may sound appealing, the gurus of conservation biology are quick to advise that just clearing invasive species is generally a futile exercise unless something is planted to take its place. My experience with wattle in Kula is that any clearing or ground disturbing activity is likely to be followed by the germination of thousands of wattle seedlings where the area was cleared of them. If the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership is adequately funded and can aggressively plant and manage koa, alani, sandalwood, and other native Hawaiian plants, then the big picture looks better in the long run.

Another argument against biomass combustion is that plant materials are better utilized by composting, thus returning health and nutrients to the soil. Maui’s soils range from very fertile to extremely depleted. It is in our best interest to support regional green-waste drop off/ composting sites to provide adequate opportunities to keep yard trimmings out of the landfill, and to rebuild soils in many areas, including backyard gardens. The County-supported drop off at the Maui Earth Compost site in Kihei is a step in the right direction.

Hawaii has set benchmarks for both reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and for integrating renewable energy production. However, no such goals have been set for reducing our dependence upon imported foods. In October of last year, the Big Island held a sold-out two-day Food Summit conference. This followed a study contracted by the Kohala Institute and 80-page report that indicated the island of Hawaii produces only 16-18% of the food consumed by its residents and visitors, and has no more than a week and a half food supply in the event that the barges stop coming for any reason. I believe that it is vital to Maui’s future that a similar study take place, and the County could follow up with a Food Security Expo think-tank much like last year’s Energy Expo. Please consider giving this kind of initiative support in the proposed 2009 budget.

We can survive a lot longer without fuel than we can without food. Electricity is a luxury that human beings have enjoyed for little more than the last hundred years. But during that period of time, human population has grown from 1.5 billion to more than 6.5 billion. Resources have been stripped, eco-systems have been devastated, rivers and oceans have been diverted and polluted, and fertile lands paved over and built up—all so that human beings can continue their over-consumptive lifestyles.

If our discussion of biomass to energy is just an attempt to maintain our present rate of consumption, but with local fuel sources, then we are missing the mark of our obligation to future generations. What we need is more of a Complete Makeover of our energy consumption, food production, economic projection, and environmental protection. Given our current rates of growth, importation of goods, and consumption of resources, I strongly believe we need to be much more bold than setting goals of 20% renewables by 2020. We ought to be looking to be self-sufficient by that date.

If 35,000 acres of Maui sugar cane were used to produce ethanol fuel, we might be able to produce enough to offset around one third of our yearly gasoline use, assuming 650 gallons per acre yearly [Brazil’s average rate]. A successful cellulosic ethanol process could even lead to an end to cane burning. But, our plantation’s corporate parents at Alexander and Baldwin have given no indication they are moving to change the status quo of growing sugar as a commodity crop anytime soon. Also, according to data offered by Kauai’s Gay & Robinson plantation at last October’s Hawaii Bioenergy Workshop, each gallon of ethanol could require 4.18 pounds of imported Australian coal to produce.

Meanwhile, our public utility, Hawaiian Electric, seems to be leading us down a curious path of non-sustainability by their support of two mega-biodiesel refineries in Hawaii. The two proposed facilities, Imperium on Oahu and BlueEarth Biodiesel on Maui, would have a combined refining capacity of 220 million gallons yearly. The combined capacity of 150 existing biodiesel plants across the US is only seven times that amount.

Claims have been made that biodiesel is cleaner burning, and that building these facilities will lead to growing biofuel crops on fallow ag lands. With no existing ag production of biodiesel feedstock plants in Hawaii, we’d be locking ourselves into another imported fuel for many years to come. That does nothing for our energy security, or the volatility of fuel prices. And, it hasn’t been shown that biodiesel crops are viable in Hawaii in commercial quantities, or that the economics would ever work out for Hawaii farmers.

Indonesia and Malaysia, the top palm oil growing regions of the world, have cheap labor, and cheap land, including native rainforests cleared through slashing-and-burning. Hawaii environmental organizations have joined dozens of national and international groups highlighting the environmental devastation of the palm oil industry as a whole. Rainforest destruction and endangered species habitat loss is being tracked through campaigns by World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Committee, Friends of the Earth, Orangutan Outreach, and many, many others.

Marcus Colchester of the Forest Peoples Programme recently published a 95-page report of injustices to the indigenous people of the palm growing regions of Sumatra and Borneo, documenting cases of native people losing traditional lands to newcomers who clear forests and peat bogs for palm plantations, releasing enough carbon so that Indonesia is ranked the third carbon emitting nation in the world behind the US and China. That dispels the notion that HECO would be burning a cleaner fuel in their generators.

I sympathize with the position Mr. Shinyama of Maui Electric has been put in by corporate decisions made at Hawaiian Electric. Clearly Hawaii has abundant resources that offer far better choices for electrical generation than burning liquid fuel. Yet, HECO intends to build a new 110 megawatt facility at Campbell Industrial Park by 2009, and MECO still has plans to add a diesel generating plant at the Maui Waena site by 2012, as Ed Reinhardt stated at the Energy Expo.

Running either or both of those plants on biodiesel overlooks yet another problem with a shift to biofuels—rising food costs due to competition for ag lands and crops. Last year, University of Minnesota Agricultural Economist Ford Runge authored a study published by the Council for Foreign Relations titled, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor”. US subsidies for corn-based ethanol and a worldwide push for biofuels, especially from developing countries like India and China, have sent prices soaring in places like Mexico, where tortilla prices have tripled. A recent NY Times feature story showed how the poor in India are no longer able to purchase the palm oil they need to cook their food, due to the rapid commodity price rise over the past 18 months.

To summarize, I believe Hawaii and Maui have far better choices for our energy future than the current proposals from our public utility. We can commit to solar, wind, wave, and ocean thermal resources for electrical generation. We can look ahead to electric cars. Biomass and biofuels will not substantially solve our addictions to imported fuels, but may be a small benefit if produced locally.

Once again, these are things I believe are worthy of support right away:

Regional green-waste drop offs and composting sites.

Native plant and forest restoration, especially through the LHWRP.

Food security studies and a Food Security Symposium.

Broad efforts to support energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Support for non-combustion, non-emitting, clean energy production.

More research and development support for limited, local biofuel production.