Maui Catches a Clean Energy Wave

Supporting local agriculture and biofuels isn’t only a green initiative on the islands. It could help avert a disaster.

by / December 14, 2011
Papohaku Beach, west Molokai in Maui County. Pat McNally / Flickr CC

In Maui County, Hawaii, sustainability is a priority that runs deeper than greening the island.

Officials are trying to save the locals from a potential disaster. From foods to electricity, the Hawaiian Islands are so dependent on imported goods that if connection to the U.S. mainland was cut off by a natural disaster or harbor strike, it could be detrimental.

“If something should happen to the port, we would have a week and a half of food here in Hawaii,” said Denise Hayashi, executive director of the Hawaiian Agriculture Foundation. HAF is an organization that promotes long-term viability and increases awareness and appreciation of agriculture and farming.

Hayashi and her team are in the process of creating an app for the iPhone, iPad and Android mobile devices that would guide consumers to nearby retailers selling locally-grown food, and allow them to track prices and find recipes that use local produce. The app will also have photos, updates and profiles of farmers.

Dubbed Lei Fresh: Connecting Farmers to the Community, the app will be available in March and will be free to locals on any of the Hawaiian Islands.

“Currently we import about 85 percent of what we eat [in Hawaii],” said Hayashi. The state’s Department of Agriculture estimates that if just 10 percent of imported foods were replaced by local production, it would amount to $94 million in additional revenue to farmers.

Seems simple enough, but in Hawaii it’s less expensive to buy sugar that’s imported than grown locally. The challenge is convincing consumers why it’s vital to support local agriculture.

“We really need to connect consumers to the products and to the farmers,” said Hayashi. “The app will provide that kind of information to the consumer.”

The total cost for the project is still undetermined, but the foundation is working with a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation.

Fueling the State

Promoting agriculture isn’t limited to selling local foods. The state’s last remaining sugar plantation is located at the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company in Maui. HC&S has an extensive history of producing biofuels, mostly from a sugarcane byproduct called bagasse that’s burned to heat water and produce steam for turning a turbine that creates electricity.

With $12 million in federal funding, HC&S is working, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture, on research into using its farmlands to produce the fuel.

“Many folks in the community are hoping that something with biofuels or another renewable source will supplant this decade-old practice of open field burning,” said Robert Parsons, Maui County executive assistant for environmental concerns. The burning can be hazardous to people’s health, Parsons said.

Over the years, HC&S had tried different methods for producing electricity beyond bagasse, like ethanol from sugarcane and a gasification technology. But they haven’t panned out for commercialization.

“I would love to see plantation diversity. There’s a lot of politics involved,” said Parsons.

A number of companies have crop trials under way — looking at sorghum, eucalyptus, sugar cane, algae and even macadamia nut shells as energy sources.

Obstacles Remain

There are several challenges to reaching the state’s goal of using 70 percent clean energy by 2030.

Ensuring long-term funds for large-scale production, forming relationships with farmers and companies that have the technology to process and distribute biofuel, rising land prices and the high cost of Hawaii agriculture are some of them.

Hawaii is the most fossil fuel-dependent state in the nation, said Parsons. About 85 percent of total primary energy, 75 percent of electricity and 97 percent of transportation fuels are produced from oil. All the oil is imported from other U.S. states, putting Hawaii at risk for supply interruptions and price fluctuations in the world oil market.

“With our unique geographic location, you would think we would be the poster child for demonstrating how to use local resources,” he said.

Shep Murray, a Maui native who’s been in the farming business for 35 years, owns Wai Ulu Farms. He said the island has many small-scale farms that wouldn’t be able to produce enough of the crops needed to supply energy to run a biofuel factory.  And most farmers wouldn’t want to take the financial risk anyway, he said.

“The return on growing vegetables is higher to begin with than it would for a biofuel-type crop, something that could be converted to energy,” Murray said.

Still, Parsons said efforts at the community level are starting to take effect.

Hawaii’s most advanced biodiesel production facility recently broke ground in Keaau, a community on The Big Island. With a capacity of more than 8,000 gallons per day and more than 2.6 million gallons per year, the facility will help encourage local farmers to consider growing biofuel crops.

The plant’s “multiple feedstock capability” allows it to process used cooking oils, jatropha oil, sunflower oil, algae oil and even fish oil and animal fats.

Despite the promise of several biofuel projects in the works, islanders aren’t counting on major changes happening anytime soon.

“Our real challenge is to create some sort of sustainability that can be done at the same financial level as the mainland which has better advantages like economies of scale,” said Murray.  “Because of our size and distance, everything ends up suffering from the added cost.”

Photo: Papohaku Beach, west Molokai in Maui County. Pat McNally / Flickr CC

Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.