Biofuels and the Problem of Tropical Islands, Part II of II

April 30, 2013 |

hawaii-4-sm-canePeril and Promise from Haiti to Hawaii: a two-part series

Geology denies them fossil fuels for cheap fuel, powerful export incomes, or fertilizers. Isolation brings them thin soils better suited to growing wood than staple crops. Deforestation is often rampant. Energy dependency leads to trade imbalances and weak currencies that make importing foreign technology prohibitive. The onset of climate change – threatening coasts with freakish weather and rising tides, isn’t helping any.

Though there are exceptions among the archipelagoes with access to offshore oil assets — Indonesia comes to mind— but these are, in the main, exceptions to what might be described as the general problem of tropical islands.

In today’s Digest: Part II – Hawaii — in “Biofuels and the Problem of Tropical Islands: Peril and Promise from Haiti to Hawaii”.

You can access Part I – Haiti, here.

Part II – The Greening of Hawaii

In the years of sail, wood-based steam and whale oil lamps, Hawaii was a land of plenty as energy goes. But in the years since, when ships and machines turned to coal and then diesel, and jets turned to kerosene fuels, the Hawaiian Islands have come to personify the kind of island-based energy dependency that destabilized the Asia-Pacific in the 1930s and contributed to the outbreak of the Japanese expansionary wars of the 1937-45 period.

Agriculture previously was at the heart of Hawaii's economy

Agriculture previously was at the heart of Hawaii’s economy

It used to be that the outskirts of Honolulu had the dual scent of diesel and pineapple processing — but now, all you really smell is the diesel. Sugarcane and pineapple are every year less and less in evidence — and petroleum is dominant, right down to generation of the state’s electricity.

If fossil energy dependency wasn’t unpalatable enough simply on cost and price volatility grounds — and for reasons of climate-change mitigation which are more immediately worrisome to islands — there is the problem of Pearl Harbor.

It is not a satisfactory state of affairs, US war planners have determined, to have the central focal point for projecting US naval power in the Pacific dependent on a single, interruptible fuel source.

Accordingly, there are a host of reasons for Hawaii to find itself on the front lines of the effort to add a strong renewables component to the fuel and power mix.

In fact, the Hawaiian Electric Companies yesterday reported that it reached a record 13.9 percent of energy needs from renewable generation in 2012 – well on the way to passing the next clean energy goal of 15 percent in 2015. Added rooftop and utility-scale solar photovoltaic facilities on all islands, more wind energy on Oahu and Maui and increased geothermal energy production on Hawaii Island all contributed to this progress.

Leading the the coalition for change: warfighters, algae developers, thermochem engineers and a crew of plant scientists.

The Navy and its Hawaii focus

At the recent Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in Washington, the Navy’s Director for Operational Energy, Chris Tindal, outlined the need for up to 284 million gallons of advanced biofuels to meet projected Navy demands. This includes 214 million gallons for power generation through HECO and 64 million gallons for tactical requirements for jets and ships.Navy-biofuels-1

As a first step, last summer the Navy demonstrated a Green Strike Group as part of the 2012 RIMPAC exercises, the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise that includes 40 surface ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel from 22 different nations.

To supply biofuels for RIMPAC 2012, the military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Henry J. Kaiser (T-AO 187) delivered 700,000 gallons of hydro-treated renewable diesel fuel, or HRD76, to three ships of the strike group. Kaiser also delivered 200,000 gallons of hydro-treated renewable aviation fuel, or HRJ5, to Nimitz. Both fuels are a 50-50 blend of traditional petroleum-based fuel and biofuel comprised of a mix of waste cooking oil and algae oil.


Due to the intense nature of Hawaiian Naval demand, it is widely expected that the first commercial-scale biofuels refinery built under the Defense Production Act’s Title III authority will focus on supplying Hawaii.

Three hot algae projects

Last month, Phycal was awarded a $27.1m grant from the Department of Energy to produce biofuel from microalgae cultivated with CO2. Development partners for the project include General Electric’s Global Research Group and Seambiotic, among others. The group is currently operating a pilot cassava and algae farm in Hawaii. The DOE grant will come in two phases: $3m in the first phase, and $24.2m in a second phase.

Last July, Cellana announced the launch of its ReNew brand and ReNew Omega-3 line of algae-based products at the GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA) conference being held this week in Boston, Massachusetts. The ReNew brand was developed to meet the growing demand for more sustainable Omega-3 human health products, animal nutrition products, and biofuel feedstocks.

The ReNew portfolio is comprised of four main product categories: ReNew Omega-3, including both  ReNew Omega-3 products includes ReNewEPA and ReNewDHA, ReNew Feed as a nutritional product for the animal feed market; ReNew Fuel as an algae-based biocrude, particularly for jet fuels for commercial and military aircraft; and ReNew Algae, available in bulk for customers to apply their own extraction technologies and develop customized solutions within these application areas.

The ReNew product line is derived from Cellana’s scalable, sustainable, and patented ALDUO algae production technology. Cellana’s six-acre Kona Demonstration Facility on Hawaii’s Big Island has produced more than nine tons of algal biomass for commercial testing.

Last August, U.S. EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld recognized Kuehnle AgroSystems for the company’s innovative work in producing algae for use in biofuels as part of the Pacific Southwest region’s environmental awards program.

Envergent’s Hawaii project

A year ago, Ensyn and Honeywell’s UOP announced that their pyrolysis process is capable of producing RTP fuel at scale, a crude oil competitor for a price of $45 per barrel (of oil equivalent). Even more startling, the RTP fuel can be upgraded at the refinery – using a modified (but apparently standard refinery equipment – UOP and Ensyn are being cagey about the exact piece of refinery equipment, but our understanding is that is is widely used, particularly in the US).
The Honeywell’s UOP team is reporting yields in the 70 gallons per ton of biomass range with indications that it can reach 90 gallons per ton over time.

Good news on feedstock too- its a relatively agnostic process – back in 2010 at the time that Envergent (the UOP-Ensyn joint venture) received a $25M DOE grant to build a fast pyrolysis and upgrading unit at the Tesoro refinery in Kapolei, Hawaii, they said they would test waste agriculture products, pulp, paper, woody biomass, algae and dedicated energy crops like switchgrass and high-biomass sorghum.

That’s the good news, here’s the bad news. In January, Tesoro announced that it will close its refining operations in Hawaii in April and the site will become a fuel terminal. A silver lining? We understand that the Envergent project is quietly moving to the Chevron refinery, the last fossil fuels refinery in Hawaii.

R&D efforts and a sugarcane revival

Last June, the University of Hawaii has received a $6m federal grant to research the conversion of grass into biofuel. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye said in a press release that such sustainable energy projects are “vital to the health of our environment and our economy.” He says the project will ease Hawaii off its dependence on imported oil.

Hawaii native soil, without sugarcane

Hawaii native soil, without sugarcane

Immediately adjacent land parcel, with sugarcane planted

Immediately adjacent land parcel, with sugarcane planted

This project will optimize the production of grasses in Hawaii, including napier grass, energycane, sugarcane, and sweet sorghum. Harvest and preprocessing will be optimized to be compatible with the biochemical conversion to jet fuel and diesel.

The project will seek to develop high-yielding biofuel feedstocks that are economically viable and sustainable; to establish advanced local biofuel production processes; and to guide development of an advanced biofuel supply chain. Faculty from the departments of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, and Natural Resources and Environmental Management are partnering with researchers from Oregon State and Washington State University and with ZeaChem, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, and Hawai‘i BioEnergy LLC.

It will also develop ways to assess the sustainability of renewable energy production in Hawai‘i, focusing on investigating the development of a rural-based decentralized pre-processing system.

The developmental efforts have lately stretched beyond cane and into papaya. the state has invested $200,000 in a papaya-based biofuels program. The grant, coming from the state’s Department of Agriculture, has been awarded to the USDA’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, who has teamed up with BioTork Hawaii. The process uses algae and fungi, and will be scaled up to a pilot facility before reaching commercial production.

More on Hawaiian bioenergy and renewables projects

Earlier this year, the State Energy Office reported its top 40 energy projects which include solar photovoltaic, hydroelectric, biofuel, wind and geothermal, here.


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