Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawaii will arrive on Maui this summer to work with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to study crops, growing conditions and other issues in developing biofuels on the island.
The 130-year-old plantation is working with federal and state partners to help determine not only its own future, but also the future of growing biofuel crops in Hawaii to power both the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet and private vehicles across the state. The end result could be the development of a biofuel refinery for HC&S, said company General Manager Rick Volner Jr.
Bagasse is “combed” to the edges of a Puunene Mill warehouse and then lifted by a conveyor belt cascade back to the pile as the sugar processing byproduct is dried and prepared for burning in the mill’s electrical generation plant.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The goal is to transition HC&S into a leading "energy farm," and develop the resources to sell commercial jet and diesel fuels to the government and private consumers.
Success could guarantee that the company would continue to employ around 800 people, and perhaps even more, company officials said.
"There are no firm deadlines for this project, but the sooner we can decide, the easier it will be for the board of Alexander & Baldwin (HC&S's parent company) to fund some of these products, and obviously we will need to make some capital investments," Volner said last week. "But we're more interested in making the right decision than when we make it."
Officials said the research phase could take five years.
The project is a public-private venture with partners from the University of Hawaii, USDA, Department of Energy (DOE) and HC&S.
The groups are moving forward as planned to use HC&S and its 37,000-acre sugar plantation as a laboratory this summer, said USDA program leader Jeffrey Steiner in a phone interview last week from his Washington, D.C., office.
Organizers had hoped that process would be done by 2015, when the $4 million in annual funding for contractors and subcontractors runs out.
And participants said they also will be attending clean-energy conferences to find, at least, the best technological platform with which to begin, said UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources project manager Andrew Hashimoto.
Starting this summer, UH researchers plan to grow different plants and varieties of them at various altitudes, with different water levels and soil conditions, Hashimoto said.
Then they will record the yields, test the crops on different fuel-producing technologies and finally figure out the financial viability of their efforts for the potential investors. Basically, Hashimoto said it is key to know how much needs to be grown in order to produce enough fuel to make it worthwhile to move forward.
"We are still just getting started on the right path to take," Volner said.
In the best-possible scenario for HC&S, company officials said they could branch out into the biofuel business while maintaining production of sugar, molasses and bagasse, the pulp of sugarcane fibers that can be burned to provide electricity.
"We don't know what HC&S will look like until this all shakes out," Volner said. "It could be a combination of sugar and biomass, or we could concentrate on just the biomass. I can tell you it's way too early to say HC&S is getting out of sugar."
Even in its fourth year of drought, Volner said HC&S was able to produce 171,800 tons of raw sugar last year and is on target for producing more than 180,000 tons in 2011, with an ultimate target of 200,000 tons.
The biofuel study could reach far beyond HC&S, and revitalize farms and plantations statewide, if successful, organizers said.
UH scientists are tasked with selecting the best crop, or combination of crops. Hashimoto's team also will help the USDA find the technology that fits best with the biomass they've selected. UH-CTAHR is a partner in the process through a $2 million annual grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Steiner said there are at least two companies, Rentech Inc. of Denver, and Virent Energy Systems of Wisconsin, that can produce gasoline or jet fuel with biomass or sugar, respectively.
"It is being done," he said, although not on a large scale or to perfection.
None of the technologies is commercially proven yet, Volner said, "so we haven't made a decision on the technology. This is a two-pronged approach, with a focus on the crop side first for now."
Volner said that if everything falls into place, HC&S could be the biofuel-production hub for all of Hawaii and possibly other nearby Pacific islands.
He said HC&S would start planting some of its crops for testing in July.
"All of the fieldwork is related to increasing the amount of biomass we can achieve, but everything will be compared to sugar cane," Volner said. "It's at the top, and we will see if anything can knock it off."
Hashimoto said they are looking at five different crops that are considered to be the best for producing diesel and jet fuels. Crops with high amounts of cellulose or hemicellulose are considered the best, he said.
If the crop study is successful, it could mean future investments in construction of a refinery, possibly with federal no- or low-interest loans and grants, he said.
This isn't the first time HC&S has investigated biofuels.
Several years ago, the company looked seriously at producing ethanol but abandoned the idea because the financial estimates weren't good enough, officials said at the time.
The USDA received its half of the annual grant from
the Navy, Steiner said. The Office of Naval Research is heavily involved, too, on the technology side of the equation, he said.
"Our (USDA's) real interest in this is in developing a standard approach to answering these questions anywhere in the world," Steiner said. "We want to have the opportunity anywhere to produce the feedstock, produce it optimally and make fuel."
One of the reasons Maui makes such a great proving ground, however, is because of the tropical climate conducive to fast-growing sweet crops with plenty of cellulose, and it can be farmed year-round, he noted.
The USDA's role includes examining soil quality for the best possible yields, as well as the places with the most productive weather patterns for the crop being grown, Steiner said.
"Our forte is to use science to help farmers make good decisions" he said.
If the fuel crop study is successful, the information would then go to the board of directors for HC&S's parent company, Alexander & Baldwin Co., who would decide whether to move forward with the project and invest in the state's first biofuel refinery, Volner said.
"This could be our solution to a whole lot of problems," Hashimoto said. "It's a new ball game. And I gotta say it's fun and exciting, especially if it's your area of research. It's really risky, too."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.