Imagine for a moment this reality: a Maui County that grows a significant portion of its own fuel in a sustainable, soil-preserving, crop-rotating fashion. Multiple crops are raised to create clean, renewable, low-emission, non-toxic and biodegradable fuel for trucking, farm tractors, fleet vehicles and electric utility back-up generators. Farmers are growing crops that bring them enough income to continue farming, proud because their crops fuel their island's needs.
This vision is within reach because one Maui business has worked for 16 years to make it possible, as Kelly King, vice president of Pacific Biodiesel Technologies (PBT), presented in her talk, "A Pono Biofuels Agricultural Future for Maui," at a recent Upcountry Sustainability monthly meeting.
As U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently recognized, "Pacific Biodiesel is the oldest biodiesel business in the U.S., started in 1996."
Kelly King, with her husband, Bob, spoke at a recent Upcountry Sustainability presentation. As pioneers in biofuel production since 1996, the Kings are pursuing a viable and sustainable biofuels agriculture plan for Maui and the Hawaiian Islands. They agree that “growing a local fuel source could be in our near future.”
King and her husband, Bob King, built that first plant on Maui to transform used cooking oil into biodiesel for cars, trucks, farm equipment and Maui Electric Company. To date, they have built 13 plants, nationally and internationally. Having succeeded with used oil, this company is moving on to the next challenge--oilseed crops that can be grown and used locally.
"According to Bloomberg press' 2010 New Energy Finance report, petrochemicals get $557 billion in global subsidies, while renewable energy gets $45 billion, and that does not include the military efforts to protect our oil resources abroad," said King in her presentation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave PBT a $5 million business and industry loan guarantee to expand their capacity on Hawai'i Island. The state government offers a $.30 per gallon subsidy for ethanol production, a fuel that King said produces only slightly more energy than it takes to produce it. But the state does not include a production credit for biodiesel, which has a balance of 5.4 units of energy returned for every unit used to process and grow it.
"Our company is proud that for every dollar of revenue we generate, 90 cents stays in the State of Hawai'i," King added. "That money circulates three to five times, adding to our economy instead of depleting it."
Attendees had heard the warnings about agricultural biofuels--slash-and-burn operations in Indonesia that exposed fragile tropical soils to erosion, vital rain forests burned to supply fuel to communities half a world away, fuel crops displacing food crops and driving up subsistence food prices.
King has addressed these concerns by founding the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that is developing a sustainability certification for biofuel producers. Its auditable process can assure consumers that the crops and fuel are responsibly grown and produced. (Visit fuelresponsibly.org to see its code of ethics.)
"The beauty of Hawai'i-based biofuels agriculture," explained King, "is that it can be versatile. Hawaiian Homelands landholders can grow kukui nut trees on their lots, as is being considered on Molokai. The oil from those nuts can be mixed with oil from fields of sunflowers, safflower, camelia and soy for biodiesel feedstock. Throw used cooking oil into the mix. Collect fallen kukui nuts from the forests. Even animal fats can be used, making a rendering facility a viable business to complement our local meat production.
"There are so many ways to grow oil crops," King continued. "On O'ahu's North Shore, PBT oversees a military-funded biofuel crop demonstration trial to test 100-day crops in rotation to produce Hawai'i-grown oil. Part of the vision is to produce local food-grade oil as well, dispelling the food versus fuel controversy.
"With that $2-plus million grant," King said, "the trial will grow these crops, determine the necessary farm equipment, design and begin the ag processing mill, and identify potential co-products. We'll hold workshops with farmers throughout Hawai'i, sharing the results with them."
Co-products can include the pressed meal to be used for livestock feed and glycerin from the biodiesel processing for soap making and fertilizer.
The 'Aina Mo' Project is a USDA grant-funded study that includes the efforts of Keanae taro farmers, using a current PBT byproduct to amend the soil and counter the apple snail that bedevils taro farmers. Instead of harsh insecticides, taro farmers are helping to test the safety of this by-product to be sure there are no undesirable environmental impacts and to determine the right formula for effective control of the snails.
On Hawai'i Island, farmers are considering jatropha, a fast growing tree that produces an oil-rich seed. Some have worried about the toxicity of this poisonous tree. King said farmers like some things about its toxic qualities. Insects don't feed on it and foraging deer, goats and pigs will leave it alone, which eliminates the cost of fencing and pesticide applications. This tree has a 35-plus-year lifespan and reaches maximum capacity in about four to five years.
The attendees of the presentation were impressed by the possibilities of the Kings' goals. As proud Maui residents, they wondered how the island could be on the forefront of the sustainable biofuels movement. Which landowners and which county officials would step up to help bring this agricultural program to life?
Bob King, also in attendance at the presentation, wished for "50 acres here and 50 acres there so we can learn the economics and the potential. A model is needed and why not create it on Maui?"
For Kelly, this potential for "diverse agricultural energy security" is one more positive step toward achieving Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative goals and a way to bring the solution home to Maui.