PUUNENE - A multimillion-dollar research project to investigate converting Hawaii's last sugar plantation to biofuel crops could mean the end of an era of another kind: cane burning.
Officials with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. said last week that if the project is successful and results in the plantation converting to a green harvest method or an alternative crop, burning would no longer be necessary. In fact, HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin said it would be desirable if the product could be harvested without burning it.
"If we were to switch to an energy farm, it is possible our farming and harvesting methods, and processing of cane, might change in such a way as to make green harvesting feasible," said
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Central Maui’s sugar cane fields may end up producing new crops intended for high-tech, cleaner-burning and renewable biofuels intended for the Navy, civilian vehicles and Hawaii’s electrical grid. This photo was taken last month during a flight over Pukalani.
Benjamin. "Our objective would be to maximize the energy potential of the crop, so we would hope to be able to bring the entire plant in for processing."
That would be welcome news to critics of cane burning, who say it's ugly and environmentally harmful as well as life-threatening for residents with asthma or other respiratory illnesses.
But the change is at least years away - if it's going to happen at all.
The research partnership announced last week between HC&S and state and federal agencies has a five-year timeline. And Benjamin noted that the company spent millions in the 1990s researching green harvest methods, without success.
The company on Wednesday joined with U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye to announce that the project to research new biofuels and energy conversion technologies would receive at least $4 million in annual federal funding.
The U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Navy (which is interested in the development of advanced new fuels) and U.S. Department of Agriculture are participating in the program, along with the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
The research will emphasize strategies "that ensure adequate resources and infrastructure are available to supply feedstock for biorefineries to produce diesel and jet fuels from sugars," said U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan last week.
It's still early in the process, but Inouye's spokeswoman, Jennifer Sabas, said that if the research is a success, HC&S would most likely qualify for federal capital improvement dollars to refurbish or build a new plant, a project that would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Navy expressed interest in HC&S producing jet fuel but isn't limiting the company to that scope, said federal officials who were on island for the announcement last week. This is not just a plan to produce a form of fuel that already exists, they said.
The idea is to produce "advanced biofuels and renewable energy" from sugar cane and other biomass crops that can be grown in Hawaii, Merrigan said.
University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Dean Andrew Hashimoto said his team of up to 18 scientists will be researching new crops and technologies. The field trials will be done on Maui, and they've already started setting up field plots, he said.
The entire project should be up to full speed by this fall, Hashimoto said.
HC&S officials said they hope to spend the next two years in the research phase, and if a cost-effective crop and a plan is agreed upon, the 132-year-old company would devote the following three years to implement, including converting its mill into a state-of-the-art biofuel plant.
On Maui, a lot of the research will be dedicated toward deciding what is the best crop to grow, Benjamin said. Officials said the company would look at plants besides sugar cane to produce the biofuels.
For the past 30 years, typically, biofuels have been made by either fermenting sugars for ethanol or using natural oils in palm nuts, soybeans, mustard seeds or jatropha to produce biodiesel and jet fuel.
However, there have been sweeping advancements in recent years that have resulted in a much greater variety of fuels that can be produced from more kinds of plants with less waste, and a significant reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases generated by the process, plan proponents said.
"I don't think they'll end up with cane as their crop," predicted Mayor Charmaine Tavares, a biofuel advocate who has said her goal is for Maui to meet 95 percent of its energy needs from renewable and sustainable sources by 2020.
She said she likes the partnership plan "because the feds are helping with the risky part, the research."
Tavares said she was enthusiastic about the project because of its potential to reduce Maui's dependence on imported fuel and help a major island employer survive for the long-term.
"I'm pleased that the future of one of our community's oldest companies can be supported by innovative and forward-thinking opportunities," Tavares said. "Preserving agriculture, keeping jobs and advancing renewable energy is a win-win situation for Maui."
She was less swayed by the cane burning issue.
"I think a lot of the people who complain the most about the cane (burning) boils down to whether you grew up with it or not," said Tavares, who spent part of her own youth on a sugar plantation.
The sight of the sugar mill's billowing smokestack may someday soon be a relic as well, Benjamin said.
The company hopes to create biofuels so advanced that existing engines would require little to no conversion technology in order to use them, he said. Benjamin also left the door open for HC&S to produce liquid fuels that would keep it in the electricity-production business.
That would spell an end to the current method of burning leftover, ground-up cane stalks, called bagasse, to make steam electricity. Today, HC&S provides 7 percent of Maui Electric Co.'s electricity with bagasse.
"There are other forms of biomass conversion technologies under development that could be more efficient and environmentally friendly," Benjamin said.
Another goal of the research is to find a way to continue the long practice of HC&S selling byproducts, such as molasses and cane tops, for feed to Maui's ranchers.
Finally, as part of the entire energy farm concept, Benjamin said HC&S plans to evaluate solar and wind energy projects on its acreage but will focus on generator power instead, which is available day or night, windy or calm.
Last week's partnership announcement also has the potential to influence a case on HC&S's water rights, people on both sides of the issue said.
Disputes over water use between the company and Native Hawaiians and environmental groups are pending before the state Commission on Water Resource Management. HC&S now uses an average of 200 million gallons a day diverted from East and Central Maui streams.
Faced with years of large negative financial balances and the potential loss of at least 35 million gallons a day, company officials have said a decision against them could result in the shutdown of sugar production.
HC&S officials and Inouye said the company probably needs at least the water it already has to be successful in this new venture.
Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake, who is heading the effort to return HC&S water back to Na Wai Eha's four streams in Central Maui, said he was disappointed to hear that Inouye was buying HC&S' "all or nothing" argument for keeping its water supply.
"It's good to see HC&S is finally starting to look to the future, instead of clinging to its past," he said.
"In addition to alternative crops, (HC&S) should move on to responsible alternatives to draining Maui's rivers and streams, like fixing its leaky system and using its agricultural wells and reclaimed water from the county," Moriwake said.
Both sides said they wonder whether the state water commission will take into consideration this latest announcement when rendering its final decisions, which are expected in May.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.