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A&B planning pongamia project on former HC&S land

Tree’s seed oil can be used for biofuel

A demonstration project to grow pongamia on old Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. land in the Maalaea/north Kihei area could get underway in mid-May, an Alexander & Baldwin official said. The tree from India and Australia could produce 400 gallons of biofuel per acre from its seeds. -- TerViva photo

Alexander & Baldwin is close to formalizing a partnership with a seed oil producing company on a 250-acre demonstration project to produce biofuels from the pongamia tree on old sugar fields with planting possibly to begin in mid-May.

Darren Pai, A&B spokesman, said Friday that pongamia, a long-living tree from India and Australia, also offers the possibility of producing food and fuel — with cattle grazing or other crops grown between the tree rows.

“We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels and bioenergy,” Pai said. “Transitioning the former plantation lands into diversified agriculture provides an opportunity to look at growing more energy crops locally.”

A&B has been in discussions for a few years with Oakland, Calif., based TerViva, which has been working on smaller pongamia projects in Hawaii, he said. “The transition of the former sugar plantation resulted in an opportunity to work together on a larger project,” Pai said.

Since Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. harvested its last sugar cane in December, parent company A&B has been looking for uses for the 36,000 acres of fields in Central and Upcountry Maui. The company has ongoing livestock partnerships and is looking at working with MauiGrown Coffee on expanding its coffee fields to old sugar land, possibly near the intersection of Omaopio and Pulehu roads or below Haliimaile.

TerViva is a 6-year-old company with offices in Hawaii, California and Florida that grows the orchard crop pongamia, a nongenetically modified organism tree that can be grown with little or no irrigation, according to the company’s website.

The seed oil from the tree may be used to produce biofuels. The residual pongamia seed cake, which is high in nitrogen and protein, can be used in fertilizer, animal feed supplements or as a feedstock for other bioenergy, including biogas production, Pai said.

A&B will be “partnering with TerViva on an initial 250-acre demonstration project with the possibility of expanding up to 2,000 acres or more if all goes well,” said Pai.

The two companies “are close to finalizing our partnership,” Pai said, adding that planting could begin in mid-May. When asked if A&B would lease the land to TerViva or grow the plant itself with TerViva, Pai said: “TerViva will grow the pongamia and manage the project with support from A&B.”

The Maalaea/north Kihei site was selected because of good sun exposure, productive soil, access to irrigation and other conditions like grade and accessibility, he said. Farming the tree will require some drip irrigation, but the water needs will be less than equivalent acres of sugar cane.

“Pongamia has grown well in smaller projects on Oahu and Hawaii Island without any environmental concerns,” Pai said.

Pongamia produces an annual harvest of seeds similar to soybeans, he said. TerViva estimates that 400 gallons of oil can be produced per acre.

“The purpose of our project is to confirm pongamia’s agronomic suitability in Central Maui and to determine production costs and yields at commercial scale,” Pai said.

It was not clear if A&B would process the plant on Maui. Pai said that A&B and TerViva “will evaluate together the best uses and optimal logistics for the crop, which could involve processing the crop on Maui.”

Pai said the processing of pongamia is similar to that of soybeans “and at scale could create additional jobs beyond field-related activities.”

Joanne Ivancic, executive director of the nonprofit Advanced Biofuels USA, had good things to say about TerViva.

“I have been impressed with the young people at TerViva who work with pongamia,” said Ivancic in response to an earlier story about A&B’s diversified agriculture plans that mentioned pongamia. Advanced Biofuels promotes biofuels for energy security, economic development and pollution control.

She said pongamia, a legume that fixes nitrogen to the soil, may be better for the land than hemp or sunflowers, which can be quite demanding of the soil. Pacific Biodiesel is working on a 115-acre sunflower demonstration plot on old Wailuku Sugar land near the Kuihelani and Honoapiilani highway intersection and hemp has been promoted as a farm crop for old HC&S lands, including by Rep. Kaniela Ing. The South Maui representative teamed with Oahu Rep. Cynthia Thielen during the last legislative session on possible measures to help HC&S transition to industrial hemp.

“At a conference in Washington, D.C., in early March, I was impressed with TerViva’s vision of an eventual multiuse way to grow these legume trees, incorporating pastureland forage so that the manure from the cattle will help to fertilize the trees and the grasses will serve to hold the soil,” Ivancic said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.