Talks on to generate biocrop power

A California-based renewable energy company hopes to revitalize about 2,000 acres of West Maui’s fallow farm lands to grow a biocrop that could be used to generate electricity while using county wastewater for irrigation.

Maui County recently selected Anaergia Services to build a $100 million waste conversion facility at the Central Maui Landfill. Now the company has entered negotiations with Maui Electric Co. to build the proposed Mahinahina Energy Park project near the Lahaina Wastewater Treatment Plant on land owned by Kaanapali Land Management Co.

Last month, the state Public Utilities Commission granted MECO’s request to negotiate directly with Anaergia, instead of going through the competitive bidding process. The commission’s framework for competitive bidding requires bidding for new energy contracts that produce more than 3 megawatts, but the commission has an exception for “a nonfossil fuel facility that is being installed to meet a governmental objective.”

The commission granted MECO a waiver on the condition that it file a fully executed power purchase agreement for the project within six months of the commission’s decision and order issued on March 13.

Sorghum, a grass that is native to Hawaii, would be grown on fallow agricultural lands formerly used for pineapple cultivation, according to a spokesman from MECO’s parent company, Hawaiian Electric.

Sorghum is able to withstand the high salinity and chlorides present in the Lahaina Wastewater Treatment Plant’s reclaimed water, according to a project description. Recycled water from the plant would be used to fill most of the project’s irrigation needs, and the harvested crop would be converted into a methane-rich gas called biogas in large tanks known as anaerobic digesters.

Biogas would be continuously collected and used in power production equipment to produce clean, efficient baseload renewable electricity for sale to Maui Electric under a long-term power purchase agreement, according to MECO officials quoted in the PUC docket.

The biogas would be used to generate 4.5 megawatts to 6 megawatts of “firm electric power,” the utility said. (Firm power refers to a consistent supply of power that is not reliant on variable sources such as wind and sunshine.)

“The project is an excellent public-private partnership that can use fallow land and treated wastewater which happen to be close to one another to provide another essential resource -electricity,” HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg said in an email.

He added that the county submitted a letter to the commission last year expressing strong support of the project as a way to solve an ongoing dispute that has plagued the county in recent years about the environmentally safe and sustainable disposal of reclaimed wastewater.

“The Mahinahina Project will use the reclaimed water to cultivate energy crops, so that the county will not have to dispose of the reclaimed water by other means, which have been challenged in court,” the letter states.

The county was sued in 2012 by Earthjustice on behalf of several West Maui groups alleging that the 2.5 million gallons per day of reclaimed water disposed of via the injection wells located at the treatment plant migrates to the ocean, causing harm to near-shore waters, according to PUC docket.

“The county denies these allegations, but the litigation potentially exposes the county to high litigation costs, and in the event of an adverse verdict, fines and penalties in the millions of dollars,” the document said. “The project will provide a solution that will reduce the county’s liability, and therefore the liability of the county’s taxpayers, for alleged violations of federal law.”

MECO officials said the proposed project would be designed to use all of the excess reclaimed water for irrigation.

Anaergia officials called the project “a win-win” situation for Maui.

“This project represents a win-win-win for Maui, putting farm land back into production, while using recycled water and generating reliable power from a renewable nonfossil-based fuel,” Anaergia Director of Business Development Karl Bossert said in an email.

He added that the project would “put farmers back to work,” after the decline of the pineapple industry that once helped drive the Valley Isle’s agricultural economy.

Utility and energy officials expect to have the power purchase contract filed by September, although the contract will still be subject to full review by the state PUC to be sure it meets the needs of customers in a cost-effective way, Rosegg said.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at