Rob Parsons

Who's Fueling Who?

The lackluster start to the Hawaii Bioenergy kickoff meeting

by Rob Parsons

May 29, 2008

Mmm... non-bioenergy .

Much has been said of the urgent need to shift Hawai`i's 95 percent dependence on imported fuels for its transportation and electrical generation needs. In recent months, skyrocketing oil prices have produced sticker shock at the gas pump and on our electric bills. They've also plunged ATA and Aloha Airlines into collapse.

Crude oil prices topped $100 a barrel for the first time on Jan. 2, and have quickly climbed to a record high of $135 a barrel. That means Hawai`i will be sending more than $4 billion of its energy dollars out of the state this year. In terms of bolstering our economy, safeguarding our energy security and boosting self-sufficiency, exploring the local potential to produce biofuels seems logical.

Hence the importance last week when the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) convened a meeting in the basement auditorium of the capital building in Honolulu to start on the Hawaii Bioenergy Master Plan. But public testimony towards the end of the day left the impression that many are concerned the effort is too slow and not heading in the right direction.

Hawai`i's leaders have already taken some significant steps to implement bioenergy in our state's portfolio of fuel sources. In August 2006, Governor Linda Lingle called the Governor's Biofuel Summit. The daylong discussion of opportunities and challenges cruised along well enough until Kauai Representative Mina Morita asked, "What are we doing to address food security?" The silence that followed hung in the room like volcanic haze on a windless day.

Indeed, the question of using valuable agricultural lands and water for fuel rather than food is being debated worldwide. We currently grow less than 10 percent of the food we consume, and rising transportation costs have already led to higher prices at the grocery store. To many, the most important need is being self-sufficient in feeding ourselves, rather than filling the tanks of SUVs or running our air-conditioning in the months and years to come.

Nevertheless, the 2007 state Legislature passed Act 253, which appropriated $300,000 towards preparing a "bioenergy master plan that sets the course for the coordination and implementation of policies and procedures to develop a bioenergy industry in Hawaii." It also established the Hawai`i Natural Energy Institute within the framework of the University of Hawai`i for developing "Renewable energy and energy efficient technologies." The goal is to submit a final report, master plan and any proposed legislation before the convening of the 2009 state Legislature.

Other state mandates set goals of 20 percent incorporation of renewable energy sources and 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Governor Lingle also forged an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy with a goal of 70 percent renewables by 2030.

"I'm not Pollyanna-ish," Lingle told last week's audience. "The goals can be met? Our thirst for oil in fueling world terrorism."

Calling for cross-sector collaboration, she noted that the bioenergy master plan won't be perfect, and people aren't likely to sign on 100 percent. Yet she emphasized, "We can't let us be derailed in this effort."

Following her remarks, Lingle signed a ceremonial copy of House Bill 3179, which allows leases of state land for renewable energy, and amends the definition of renewable energy producers to include growers of biofuel crops. Skillful and savvy in appeasing her detractors, Lingle presented the bill to Keynote Speaker David Cole of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., who earlier noted that "very little was achieved energy-wise," in the 2008 legislative session.

Two years ago Cole formed Hawaii BioEnergy LLC, with two other major landholders: Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate and Grove Farms of Kauai. Fueled with venture capital from three financial partners, they have been researching appropriate avenues and technologies for local biofuel production.

Cole said he foresees UH becoming like a "green MIT." He said Hawaii BioEnergy is looking to develop bio-jet fuel from algae and spoke of a "triple bottom line" of energy, economy and the environment. Cole said there are serious limitations to our existing policy network, that there is potential to offset $65 million leaving the state for imported ethanol, and that local feedstock needs pricing preference over imported fuels.

In other words, biofuels may provide a better way, but they won't likely be cheaper.

"The price of green energy can't be cheap," said Dr. Fereidun Fesharaki, Chairman and CEO of FACTS Global Energy. "The price must be high to protect us from ourselves." Fesharaki added that the U.S. uses more oil than the four major Asian economies-Japan, China, Korea and India-combined.

Worldwide usage of oil averages 87 million barrels daily, though he believes current reserves could handle up to 95 million barrels. Europe's gas prices have already hit the $8-9 range, and people there are driving smaller cars that average up to 50 miles per gallon.

Fesharaki believes that when U.S. gas prices hit $6-7 per gallon, demand will drop drastically. He also expects jet fuel prices to rise much faster than gas. He said that $200 a barrel crude oil prices are not out of the question. The oil-price.net website currently posts a one-year forecast of $172.91 per barrel.

And Fesharaki said he expects greater utilization of oil "look-alikes," including ethanol, biodiesel, shale oil, tar sands and Venezuelan "heavy oil."

Later, DBEDT Energy Engineer Maria Tome told the audience that two Hawai`i refineries, Tesoro and Chevron, process a combined 155,000 barrels of oil daily, or 50 million barrels per year. Hawai`i's electrical generation depends heavily on petroleum-78 percent, compared to a national average of just two percent-making Hawai`i by far the nation's most oil-dependent state. Imported coal accounts for another 13 percent of our electricity. She also noted that Hawai`i is one of only nine states that does not offer E-85 fuel (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) capable of supplying flex fuel vehicles.

Department of Agriculture Chair Sandra Lee Kunimoto displayed a chart of the top 10 farm commodities statewide. At nearly $100 million annually, genetically engineered seed crops outpaced pineapple and sugar, with macadamia nuts and coffee holding the next two places. Amazingly, virtually all the genetically modified seed corn planted in the Mainland U.S. is produced in Hawai`i, on slightly less than 5,000 acres spread over four islands.

Kumimoto described a myriad of rising costs of agricultural production-notably shipping, fuel, fertilizer and labor-but said product costs aren't keeping pace. She added that competition for land is taking three main forms: agriculture vs. development; ag vs ag (meaning higher price export commodities take preference over locally consumed food crops); and food vs. fuel.

Kunimoto highlighted the passage of Senate Bill 2646, which provides incentives to denote Important Agriculture Lands (IAL) in Hawai`i. Landowners would be allowed to designate up to 85 percent of agriculture lands as "important," with the remaining acreage zoned rural, urban or conservation.

But many local environmental groups believe SB 2646 would actually open up thousands of acres of ag lands to development sprawl. The Sierra Club, Hawai`i's Thousand Friends, Earthjustice and several others commented in the Honolulu Advertiser that this bill was passed with backroom political gamesmanship of last minute amendments, and that Hawai`i farmlands could be exposed to unbridled development with minimal public input.

"True farmland protection does not come from giving away the farm," they wrote, "but from genuine leadership, promoting sustainability and food security for Hawai`i." Lingle has yet to sign the bill into law.

Kauai Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, among those who signed the Advertiser commentary, also attended the bioenergy master plan kickoff meeting. "We've got to make wise decisions", Yukimura said, "on how to utilize our available land and water resources." She was one of several audience speakers who called for discussions of food crops, not just biofuels.

The panel discussion "What Can Grow in Hawaii" presented estimates of yields per acre for ethanol and biodiesel feedstocks, from sugar cane to eucalyptus and bana grass, and from jatropha to microalgae. While algae is often thought to have the greatest potential as a source of oil for biodiesel, most researchers believe commercializing the technologies of production and making the process cost effective are at least a decade away.

Dr. William Steiner of the UH-Hilo College of Agriculture traveled to Costa Rica to observe operations producing hybrids of African Oil Palms. He paid special attention to those adapted to highland climates, since Hawai`i's sub-tropical climate is not as ideal as many regions where the tree is commercially grown.

He ordered 10,000 trees, four different strains, for a pilot planting project over 120 acres of the Big Island. But Steiner told me he's still waiting for trees, since the first batch was sent instead to a project in Chile. He expects to monitor productivity over three to five years.

As with any planning initiative, our government works best when there is broad participation and input from citizens. Rising gas, food and energy prices to Hawai`i residents may be exactly the impetus needed to prompt individuals to get involved in the Hawaii Bioenergy Master Plan.

A survey to offer comments to the HBMP may be found at: