Rob Parsons

Mayor Tavares Wants to Grow Algae for Biofuel. Bad Idea.

by Rob Parsons

Mayor Tavares

August 27, 2009
In a statement calculated to deflect attention from the recent hubbub over County wastewater injection wells, Mayor Charmaine Tavares announced plans to use the water to grow algae, and to use the algae as a source of fuel. It's an idea that sounds good on the surface, but some experts say it's the wrong approach.

Speaking last Thursday at a Lahaina Civic Center public hearing, with the Environmental Protection Agency collecting comments, Tavares said she wants to "find a way to take the 3 to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day that the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility puts into four injection wells…and use the water to grow algae in lined holding ponds."

The meeting was the second held by the EPA to solicit public comments regarding a County permit application seeking a 10-year renewal to continue using the Lahaina injection wells. Last November, 70 people turned out at a hearing, including water quality specialists, state resource managers and marine biologists concerned with long-term detriment to reef eco-systems from the nutrient-rich treated wastewater, which feeds algal growth. 

An ad hoc group, DIRE (Don't Inject, Redirect), formed to promote public education on the issue, announced that by the end of July more than 180 people had written to the EPA in opposition to the 10-year permit. Support was voiced for treating the effluent to stricter R-1 standards, expanding re-use for agricultural and irrigation purposes and promoting greater water conservation efforts.

But Tavares and Department of Environmental Management Director Cheryl Okuma contend that meeting the EPA's permit conditions for more stringent water quality would cost the County—and thus ratepayers—in the range of $20-$30 million. They noted federal grant funds for upgrading wastewater treatment facilities have been absent for the past 20 years, despite EPA mandates to meet new standards.

Future Biofuel or Bad Idea?
Thus, Tavares, as reported in The Maui News, felt her plan would be a better use of taxpayers' money. But beyond her target agenda of "100 percent diversion from [the county's 18] injection wells," details of her "plan" are fuzzy at best.

"I don't know how long it will take to implement," Tavares said. "We won't know until there's a plan devised in the next 12 to 18 months. I can't even say 10 years; it just depends."

Algae, regarded by some as the Holy Grail of biofuels, has seen a recent surge in interest, with Shell Oil, Exxon and Dow Chemical investing hundreds of millions in research. The Maui News reported that the Department of Environmental Management is "in preliminary discussions with Oahu-based Hawaii Biofuels to set up an algae harvesting and processing facility."

The concept seems odd, since growing algae in onshore holding ponds would merely use treated wastewater as a growing medium, not dispose of it. Ultimately, water re-use must focus on agricultural irrigation, to supplement existing use at resorts and golf courses. The Maui News incorrectly reported that sugar cane and pineapple are among the current users of the 22 percent of the county's treated wastewater, with the remainder injected into the deep wells.

The company referred to must be Hawaii BioEnergy, a consortium announced in 2006 by former Maui Land & Pineapple CEO David Cole in partnership with Grove Farm and Kamehameha Schools, that initially looked at potential for ethanol production on more than 200,000 acres of collectively owned ag lands. A year ago, they announced a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to research development of algae oils into jet fuel. 

"Over the past 40 years algae has been developed as an effective and proven natural approach for waste treatment," says Robert Henrikson, a 30-year algae entrepreneur and president of Earthrise, the world's largest spirulina farm. "But producing biodiesel from algae grown on wastewater, while trying to solve a real waste treatment problem, is a bridge too far. Commercially competitive biodiesel from algae is probably 10 years off, maybe longer. Successful technology at scale is not yet developed, and long-term research and development is needed. Let the big players like Exxon, Shell [and] BP…bear the long term risks to commercialize yet-unproven algae-to-biofuel technology."

Photo by Christian Fischer
Continued Henrikson: "Maui County, trying to solve a waste treatment problem, should not be taking the additional risk to pursue R&D for algal biofuels with taxpayer money, just because algae biofuel investment has gained a lot of publicity or because some biofuel venture needs a project. Maui has a waste treatment problem to clean up, and algae can address the problem, but should not be part of an algae-to-biodiesel venture with all its separate and additional risks."

Microalgae, says Henrikson, is especially effective for waste treatment in warm, sunny climates. He proposes a series of algal ponds that would create oxygen and break down toxic waste. "There is no toxic sludge to dispose of," he says. "The treated water effluent can be used for irrigation, or using a reverse osmosis filter, turned back into potable water."