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Biofuel Research - A Boost for Renewable Energy in Hawaii

Updated on July 31, 2012
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Hawaii imports fossil fuels to meet 90% of its energy needs and has the highest energy cost of the US. Following state (Hawaiian Clean Energy Initiative) and federal (current administrations goals to make the US more independent from foreign oil) programs, the whole spectrum of renewable energy sources receives thus a lot of attention.

In regards to biofuel research, a project at the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa got a one million dollar grant in 2011 for a two year sustainability project, studying appropriate plants and conversion of waste biomass. One candidate is ‘Jatropha Curcas’ or physic nut, a fast and easy to grow plant with fatty seeds. They are used for the production of candles and soap and one ton of the seeds will produce up to 600 liters of quality biodiesel. Due to its low maintenance and ability to grow in arid environments it does not necessarily use up any valuable farmland needed for food production.

UH Manoa recently received another federal four year, six million dollar grant for biofuel research. Different fast growing grass species like elephant grass, sugarcane, or sweet sorghum are investigated for an optimum output including harvesting and storing procedures. Another focus is on sustainable and local production processes. The point is to not only create jobs but also to avoid import of foreign biofuel, which many times originate from crops grown on clear-cut, converted rainforests or other functioning, valuable ecosystems.

The source for biofuel may be terrestrial, or, even greener, grow in the water. In 2011, the company Cellana LLC in Kailua Kona, Big Island was awarded a three year, 5.5 million dollar federal grant to work on a byproduct of biofuel based on micro algae and to find the most efficient species. Algae contain a high percentage of oil, which they produce to store energy. Algae are also the feedstock for a pilot farm in Wahiawa, Oahu, planned by Ohio based company Phycal Inc. An agreement was signed with HECO (Hawaiian Electric Company) to purchase and test their algae biofuel in Oahu’s conventional Kahe Power plant.

Biofuel in its two most common forms ethanol and biodiesel is usually known for its utilization at gas stations. According to HECO however, it can also be used for power generation without any major modification to existing plants. The switch to this more environmentally friendly fuel in Hawaii can be done with no expected problems, as Hawaii’s power plants (unlike mainland plants, which mostly run on natural gas or coal) are already burning liquid fuels (petroleum oil). Test runs with 100% sustainably produced palm oil have already been conducted at the 90 MW generator at full capacity. Critics however fear that this will divert resources away from green energy production by solar, wind, or hydro.

In addition to the federal and state programs, the US Navy with its enormous fuel consumption is strongly interested in using locally produced biofuel. Its “Great Green Fleet Initiative” objective is to use 50% renewable energy in the next decade for ships and ground transport and to make biofuel more competitive. Recent demonstrations during RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise) with a 50-50 blend of biofuel/conventional fuel proved to be successful but not without political bickering about the increased cost.

With all the concerns in addition to higher costs that come with the implementation of biofuel, it is even more necessary to put money aside for research. Finding suitable feedstock to secure efficient and sustainable production, harvesting, and storing that leaves a low carbon foot print and will not waste water resources is vital not only for the Islands, but world wide.

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