Rob Parsons

Potential Energy

What we're doing to make Maui more fuel-efficient

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
February 15, 2007

Hawai`i holds the dubious distinction of being the most petroleum-dependent state in the U.S. The Kaheawa Wind Farm overlooking Ma`alaea gives us nice, clean power, but more than 90 percent of our energy production for electrical generation and for transportation comes from imported fossil fuels, mostly petroleum from Indonesia. Additionally, our electric rates and gas prices are the nation's highest.

What is being done to correct this imbalance and look to renewable energy sources?

These questions were part of a panel discussion at the Feb. 10 Sierra Club Maui Group annual meeting. With County Council members Jo Anne Johnson, Gladys Baisa and Mike Victorino among the audience, panelists provided practical steps to take to minimize our own "eco-footprint," even while raising greater questions as to the paths we might take.

Sierra Club Hawai`i State Director Jeff Mikulina, fresh from his training to give the presentation that formed the basis of Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, noted that each person in Hawai`i contributes 18 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. He said as he makes the rounds at the state Legislature he carries around a baggie holding 1.5 pounds of charcoal, which represents what the average resident produces each hour through automobile exhaust and electrical plant generation.

Mikulina then showed graphs indicating a steady rise of carbon dioxide levels atop Mauna Loa going back 50 years. He believes the most important legislative measure in this year's session is Senate Bill 1612 (and companion House Bill 226) that would regulate greenhouse gas emissions. SB 1612 would:

? Identify greenhouse gas sources (and their secondary effects, such as shipping coal, oil, ethanol or other materials to Hawai`i)

? Regulate these emissions over a multi-year time period

? Call for reduction of these emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

Mikulina noted that a "Hummers pay for hybrids" bill introduced this session proposes an increased excise tax on sport utility vehicles, with a corresponding elimination of a tax on hybrid gas/electric cars.

Much discussion has taken place on the potential to link Hawai`i's agricultural production with its energy production, through growing bio-fuel crops. These fall into two categories: oil crops for biodiesel and crops capable of producing ethanol, such as sugar.

"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today," inventor Rudolf Diesel said in 1912. "But such oils may become in the course of time as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time."

The Kings of Kahului-based Pacific Biodiesel know something of this. After 20 years as a diesel mechanic, Bob King devised a chemical process to remove the glycerin content from cooking oil and produce a methyl ester fuel, compatible with all diesel engines, including large electrical generation facilities. With processing facilities on Maui and Oahu, Pacific Biodiesel produces a million gallons of biodiesel fuel per year, which represents two percent of diesel fuel used by on-road vehicles.

Of course, the shipping industry consumes a far greater quantity of diesel fuel-at 67 million gallons yearly. Electrical generation burns close to 110 million gallons a year. Total diesel fuel consumption yearly in Hawai`i stands at nearly 300 million gallons.

Clearly, biodiesel produced from recycled vegetable oil cannot begin to supply that amount, so the Kings are looking for research and development funds for demonstration projects for biodiesel crops. Bob King's wife Kelly, who handles Pacific Biodiesel's marketing, believes that will require soil remediation, planting, growing, harvesting and processing before they can identify which crops ultimately are best suited to Hawai`i.

Last September, the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center released their report, Biodiesel Crop Implementation in Hawaii. That report identified close to 250,000 acres statewide that are ideal for biodiesel crop production, and discussed potential plant sources.

The African Oil Palm tops the list, with its potential to produce 650 gallons per acre. Kelly King noted that a new harvesting technique might be necessary, as Hawai`i could not compete with prices in Indonesia, where labor for hand-picking can be obtained at a mere 50 cents per hour. Should Hawai`i choose to import palm oil for biodiesel production, we would need to consider the global impacts. Friends of the Earth estimates that 87 percent of the deforestation that occurred in Malaysia from 1985 to 2000 was caused by new palm oil plantations, much of it funded by Chinese investments.

Jatropha trees may yield 250 to 300 gallons of oil per acre, and can survive on marginal agricultural lands as well as mature into production relatively quickly. Other potential crops with lesser yields include peanuts, kukui, flax, castor beans, jojoba, soybeans, rapeseed and sunflowers. Many of these, except for inedible jatropha and castor beans, could also produce a highly nutritional feed for humans or livestock as a by-product.

The production of algae to harvest oil for biodiesel has not been undertaken on a commercial scale, but working feasibility studies indicate possible yields as high as 10,000 gallons of oil per acre.

Since April, 2006, 10 percent of all gasoline in Hawai`i is ethanol, derived from renewable sources. Since local ethanol production ventures could not start fast enough to meet that demand, all our ethanol currently comes from the Mainland and Brazil.

At last October's Hawai`i Bioenergy Workshop, Alan Kennett, a Kauai sugar plantation president, outlined bold plans to begin ethanol production. Kennett stated that Gay & Robinson, one of the two remaining statewide sugar plantations (there were once 18), "can't make it any more as a raw sugar producer."

With about 8,000 acres in production, and more fallow, they believe that the patented Pearson Technology will allow them to convert cane bagasse (the fibrous residue after squeezing the juice from the cane, currently burned in boilers to produce steam and electricity) to ethanol through cellulosic and gasification processes. This would supplement ethanol produced from sugar or molasses through a fermentation process.

Ethanol produced from sugar has a seven-to-one advantage of energy potential over fuel derived from corn or sugar beets. Still, there are disadvantages. Ethanol-added gasoline is less fuel-efficient than straight petroleum. Fermentation process also produces a by-product called vinasse-an odorous organic matter that presents a considerable disposal or re-use challenge.

Still, the promise of converting the sugar industry to an energy plantation is compelling, especially in light of studies linking sugar to tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. Then, there's the ongoing debate over cane burning.

Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar is already an energy producer on Maui, through small hydroelectric production as well as contributions to the Maui Electric grid from its Pu`unene mill boilers. But they have yet to commit to ethanol production.

Lee Jakeway of HC&S, who also gave a presentation at the Hawai`i Bioenergy Workshop, had been invited to be part of the Sierra Club panel discussion, but his corporate superiors at Alexander & Baldwin nixed the idea. In any case, Jakeway told me that his studies represent only the potential for HC&S until such a time when there is a commitment from those higher up in the company.

Panelist Victor Reyes, recently appointed as Mayor Charmaine Tavares' new Energy Commissioner, has a background as a biologist and in agriculture. "Lots of ideas are being considered," he said, to help make Maui a renewable energy leader in the state and nation. While he said there are no specifics yet, "there is a lot on the list."

Activist Daniel Grantham offered that if we had a cooperative, rather than competitive economy, there would be more of a level playing field in terms of energy production. He said one easy thing that everyone in Hawai`i can do is to install solar hot water heaters-proven technology with a relatively low cost.

With the addition of Kaheawa Wind Farms, Maui actually is the state leader in renewable energy generation. Clearly, the solutions to reduce our oil-dependency will need to be multi-faceted.

Possible options besides bio-fuel include wind, hydro and micro-hydro, wave power, solar photo-voltaic and of course, an overall reduction in our energy consumption. We each need to realize that our personal choices contribute to global warming, and that our combined efforts-not just government or industry waving a magic wand-is what is required to turn the tide.