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Big Biomass Coming to the Big Island

There is a price to pay for living in paradise. The people of Hawaii put up with an uncomfortable reliance on imported oil to fuel their electric plants and their cars.

The islands’ power supply is 90% dependent on imported oil.  As a result, the population pays some of the highest rates in the U.S. for power and gas. Late last week, the Hawaiian Electric Company awarded a biomass contract to a renewable energy development company called ‘Āina Koa Pono, which means “for the good of the land” in Hawaiian. The company is planning to invest $320 million in a 13,000 acre “energy farm” in the Ka‘ū District of Hawai‘i Island (the southernmost district on the Big Island) on farm land that has been fallow for 14 years.

Ka'u is on the southern coast of the Big Island. Credit: www.thewidewideworld.com /Flickr

The farm would grow sweet sorghum and eucalyptus trees which would feed an energy plant with “the latest biomass conversion technology to transform plant matter – including unwanted invasive plant species – into usable energy products including biofuel, electricity and gasoline,” according to a company statement. No word yet on which of a host of cellulose to energy technologies would be used, or how much energy and fuel would be produced.

Over the last few years I’ve been reading about vague plans the state has for unhooking its fragile energy lifeline. There are wind farms (also in Kau, for that matter), plans for geothermal, solar, you name it. But added up they still don’t make much of a dent, because the scale has not been large enough. In fact, the most widespread cleantech innovations on the islands appear to be clotheslines and biodiesel from used vegetable oil.

But, as the Hawaii Dept. of Business, Economic Development and Tourism puts it, ”Unlike the Mainland, Hawai‘i can’t turn to neighboring states to make up for any temporary or permanent energy shortages. Unlike any other state, imported oil is the single thread that can completely unravel Hawai‘i’s future.” Yikes. The state has clearly outlined it’s ideas for renewable power sources, but it’s hard not to get the sense that they’ve been a little slow to act.


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  • Feb 8th 201112:02
    by Rodrigo Romo

    There is more to the oil dependency of Hawai’i than meets the eye. I live on the Big Island and talks about renewable energy are abundant, but not much action is seen. Part of the problem is that unlike the mainland, the one and only power utility company in the state holds what is the perfect definition of a monopoly on the local market.
    That is not the only problem of course, when we talk about the Big Island (BI)another problem is that the full load of the BI (~200MW) is too small for a large utility plant and too big for a small utility plant, so the local utility company runs several outdated and inefficient small oil burning plants.
    There are a couple of small wind farms, a small geothermal and a small hydro plant who sell power to the utility. The utility company then pays them “avoided’ cost, or the cost that they would incur if they were to generate through their oil burning plants!….
    The other irony of the situation is that, while the BI is ideal for truly renewable energy generation (there is plenty of geothermal in the Puna side, plenty of constant trade winds in the South, North and saddle of the island, and plenty of sun on the Kohala coast) talks are usually limited to “biofuel” plants. Plants that will “burn green waste”. The figures have not yet been produced to the public showing that the BI has indeed the waste generating capacity to burn in these “green plants” .

    A couple of years ago there were talks about building a waste to energy plant to deal with the problem of our land fills reaching capacity. This idea was turned down because it was not “environmentally friendly”…..So here we stand, with plenty of natural renewable resources, ignoring the existing problem of our landfills and their potential to generate electricity as well as ignoring what would be a truly renewable, oil independent energy producing state….

    It’s complicated……..

  • Jul 22nd 201116:07
    by Erin Rietow

    Some of the difficulty lies in public perception of alternative energy companies. Becoming energy independent requires the installation of industry that does not currently exist in Hawaii. Some of the price we pay for fuel allows extraction and refining processes, and the environmental impacts that accompany them, take place somewhere else. As we begin bringing the capacity to produce our own energy into the state we will also have to allow big industry in. Now, the alternative energy industry is not nearly as damaging to an area as the large oil rigs and refineries, but since Hawaii does not have such large installations (I believe we have one refinery on Oahu?) the comparison is not apparent to the majority of the populace. This is especially true on the rather un-industrialized outer islands. So, the public is generally opposed to such development because although it is cleaner than the procedure used to process fossil fuels it is “dirtier” than much of the existing industry. Your typical NIMBY response is encountered as a result.

    Combine this perception problem with the rigorous environmental standards, geographical isolation and political mine field and it is prohibitively costly, both fincially and reputationally, to develop many of the alternative energy technologies in Hawaii. What do you do?

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