Rob Parsons

Biomass Presentation

The Intersection of Agriculture and Renewable Energy - Where Food Meets Fuel

This panel will explore land uses for both food and renewable energy production.  Panelists will address whether these land uses can complement one another or are in competition with one another.

Panel Moderator:


Question: How may choices to utilize biofuels in Hawaii affect the environment and food supplies, locally and globally, and what are our best choices for solutions?

First, we need to consider whether the push to utilize biofuels has, in fact, affected the environment, and food prices. There have been dozens of scholarly articles and studies to confirm this is, indeed true. Among them are:

Next, it is helpful to look at current and proposed usage of biofuels in Hawaii.

Since April, 2006, Hawaii has had a mandate to blend 10% ethanol in our gasoline. There was much talk that this would serve to induce local businesses to produce ethanol as a renewable, local fuel source. To date, no one is producing ethanol in Hawaii, and we are importing it from the Mainland, and from Brazil. We know that 19% of the US corn crop goes to produce ethanol, and then the cost of shipping to Hawaii is also added, making the overall equation inefficient and non-sustainable.

Hawaii Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) produces a significant amount of electricity by burning leftover cane fiber, or bagasse, in the boilers of its Puunene mill. But they don’t often mention that 60,000 tons of coal are burned yearly in the same boilers, another imported fuel.

Pacific Biodiesel produces around one million gallons yearly of biodiesel fuel by processing recycled “waste” vegetable oil.

Proposed biofuel uses include plans for two biodiesel mega-refineries, Imperium on Oahu (100 million gallons/ year) and BlueEarth Biofuels on Maui (120 mgy). Both proposals are supported by Hawaiian Electric Company and Maui Electric. Once again, there is talk that building these refineries would induce local production of biodiesel feedstock crops. However, there has been no cost analysis to support this, and local land, labor, and water costs, combined with low overall return per acre, make the idea of local production for such huge facilities doubtful.

Rather than creating local biodiesel feedstock production, it is likely that these over-scaled refineries would depend upon imports from Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s top two producers of palm oil. But, it is widely known that the palm oil industry in these countries has been a source of widespread eco-system destruction, threatening endangered species from slash and burn clearing and loss of habitat. Clearing rainforests and peat reserves has released so much carbon emissions that Indonesia is now the world’s third largest producer of these Green house gasses. Additionally, many indigenous people have been forced of lands for new palm oil plantations.

There is a proposal to burn invasive wattle trees, found in Kula, at a gasification facility in Kihei, to produce up to 5 megawatts. This sounds inefficient due to transportation logistics, would need a sensible re-planting plan, and is still combustion-based, whereas other renewable alternatives are available, such as wind, waves, and solar. It is not clear if electricity produced by this method would be cheaper than diesel-fuel generation.

There is a proposal to produce algae for biodiesel on HC&S acreage near the Ma`alaea MECO generation facility. However, most experts believe that commercial scale algae-to-biodiesel production is five to ten years away, and may be expensive.

Let’s look at the biofuel operations of the companies represented on this panel:

Pacific Biodiesel, as mentioned, has adopted a small, local model for sustainable production of biodiesel fuel, staying within the limits of locally available recycled vegetable oils. Their mantra is, “All sustainability is local.”

Sumner Erdman of Ulupalakua Ranch is somewhat of a renaissance rancher, with a variety of income sources. He’s raising grass-fed beef, elk, and sheep. He leases a number of telecommunications towers and antennae. He is harvesting solar energy to grow grapes, which wind up in bottles of Tereschi wine. And, he may even have room for some biofuel crop test plots. He’s also looking at harvesting the wind energy on the ranch, through a proposal with Shell Wind.

I’m always impressed when I hear Lee Jakeway’s thorough, well-researched presentations. He’s a bright light with a plantation company, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, that otherwise has not exhibited much vision for the 21st century. They continue to grow a commodity crop—sugar—that is linked to tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes. And, they grow it in ways that continue to pollute our air, soil, and fresh water. There are bright possibilities for HC&S to grow food, or possibly pursue ethanol production from their existing 35,000 acres of sugar. But those decisions are made in corporate board rooms far from here, and maybe it’s time for us all to collectively push that boulder off the road and urge A&B to lead the way towards sustainability with their plantation segment of their business.

Hawaii Bioenergy LLC is the new kid on the block. With Maui Land & Pineapple’s 23,000 acres, 40,000 of Grove Farm, and Kamehameha Schools 150,000 or so, they have significant ag land acreage statewide. One of the first things they did was to hire consultants from Washington D.C. to study the best fir for biofuels in Hawaii. These consultants, Garten-Rothkopf, also prepared the 680-page study, “A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas/ The Global Biofuels Outlook 2007”. This report detailed biofuel production and potential continent by continent, country by country, and forecast a five-fold production worldwide by 2020. If you think biofuels are currently impacting food costs and eco-systems, just imagine a five-fold increase. With venture capitalist Vinod Khosla as one of their partners, they have looked closely at ethanol production from sugar, following the Brazil model. However, I believe the challenges of water, labor, and permitting may preclude replanting fallow sugar lands. They recently announced a contract with the Department of Defense to research producing jet fuel from algae.

So, what are our best choices? It’s important to separate the hype from the reality with biofuels. Biomass and biofuels are a subset of solar energy, which is 20-40 times more efficient on its own, according to County Energy Coordinator Kal Kobayashi. One of our best choices is to just say “No” to imported biofuels, especially palm oil. Why haven’t HECO and MECO gotten the memo about the world wide community’s opposition to using this ecologically destructive source? HECO has actively been obstructing public participation in the review process, as a Public Utility Commission docket on procurement of biodiesel fuel faces a contested case hearing from Life of the land.

Another best choice is to avoid combustion-based electrical generation, much as Al Gore implored America’s leaders to set as a ten-year goal. Liquid biofuels should be used for transportation only, not electricity, while we make the transition to cars that use electricity and hydrogen.

We must prioritize water use to benefit local food production. We should pursue only high yield local biofuels such as algae, not jatropha, kukui, or castor beans.

We can consider solar, wind, and wave power for electrical generation. And we must greatly pursue electrical efficiency and conservation.

Population control is also a best choice. We must understand the size of the sustainable community we hope to achieve.

We can elect good leaders, especially for those of you who don’t believe our current leaders are bringing the necessary changes quickly enough..

We can turn off the air-conditioning in rooms equipped for cross-ventilation.

It’s time to revisit the slogan of the 1960’s, “Power to the People.” We must introduce legislation to bring home power production to a point where we have more options, and that our electrical generation is more regionalized, rather than a central grid. We must realize that decisions made by our public utility have left Hawaii residents paying the highest rates in the U.S. by far. We deserve better.