TerViva’s pongamia tree farms popping up to meet Hawaii’s biofuel needs

August 26, 2017 |

In Hawaii, pongamia trees are being farmed for the first time in experimental plots in Oahu to help meet Hawaii’s biofuel needs, specifically for biodiesel and jet fuel. TerViva is heading up the plantings and is talking with Pacific Biodiesel to possibly use their processing plant, though TerViva could make biodiesel with their current equipment.

The trees spread out over 200 acres and are demonstrating that they can thrive in poor soil conditions making it appealing for farmers with land that can’t grow other products. TerViva estimates pongamia can produce more than 400 gallons of oil per acre, which can be used to produce biofuels. The residue from the pressing process is a seed cake which is high in nitrogen and protein and can be used in fertilizer or animal feed supplements, or as a feedstock for other bioenergy pathways, including biogas production.

TerViva told Hawaii Magazine that “pongamia produces 10 times the amount of oil per acre that soy does and three times the amount of plant protein,” making it quite the feedstock, even if it does take four or more years to mature.

As reported in the Digest in April 2016, TerViva raised $2M in a Series B venture round, and was chosen by The Yield Lab, an ag-tech business accelerator, to be in its first class of companies. TerViva had also received a grant from the Energy Excelerator, a business incubator focusing on energy innovation startups, to plant this new commercial-scale pongamia orchard on the island of Oahu.

As reported in the Digest in June, TerViva also plans to plant pongamia trees on 250 acres of former sugar plantations in the island of Maui this year through a partnership with Alexander & Baldwin. The project represents the next stage of the A&B’s plans to develop diversified agricultural projects on former sugar lands in Central Maui. Under the new diversified model, the former 36,000-acre sugar plantation is being divided up into smaller farms to accommodate a wide range of agricultural uses. In addition to the partnership with TerViva, other potential projects include further energy crops, food crops, support for the local cattle industry, and the development of an agriculture park.

Check out the Digest’s Multi-Slide Guide for TerViva.

Was the Lorax speaking for pongamia trees?

We could imagine the Lorax standing on a stump of the pongamia tree to protect it from being chopped down for a Thneed. After all, pongamia tree seeds are incredibly valuable and we need a standing tree to harvest the seeds.

The pongamia tree is native to Australia and India, and yields a nut crop harvestable with conventional shakers. The seed produced by the tree has a 40% oil content that can be easily refined into a very high-grade biodiesel, bio-jet fuel, or even other high-demand bio-chemicals like oleic acid. The remaining seedcake can then be used as a high-protein animal feed or a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

As reported in the Digest back in 2016, pongamia trees were being developed as an oilseed alternative to palm oil. Going even further back, we reported in 2012 that TerViva and Mason & Morse Farmland were partnering to develop pongamia tree projects and eyeing Florida’s thousands of acres of abandoned Florida citrus land as potential areas for their turnkey program in which they supply the trees and secure the off-take at harvest. It looks like they have been progressing in that area as Florida farmers battled citrus greening and looked for alternative crops like pongamia trees.

The pros of pongamia

The high oil content and ability to use much less water than other crops like soy and palm make the pongamia tree quite an attractive feedstock to have in the fields. As reported in April 2016, Digest reader Sreenivas Gatty writes:

I have successfully developed and demonstrated alternate farming system based on Pongamia to minimise risks and losses and maximise returns under adverse agro-climatic conditions. The model ensures that all the resources are used in an ecologically balanced way to produce energy, benefit environment, improve wealth and livelihoods.  I request you to promote integrated Pongamia plantations.

Pongamia based farming system reduces cost of inputs, improves crop yields and increases farmer’s income and improve rural livelihoods, with minimum water, under rainfed conditions. Pongamia is native to Asia and has been naturalised in Africa, Australia and America. It survives in temperatures from 5 to 50 °C and is tolerant for drought.  It is found in areas with rainfall from 200 to 2500 mm a year and in most soil types. Pongamia offers a comprehensive solution for utilisation of fallow lands and mitigating climate change. Pongamia plantations generate economic activity in rural and remote areas, apart from improving agriculture, producing biofuels, providing green cover, employment opportunities, carbon sequestration and reduced carbon emissions.

Gatty lines up some advantages and uses:

Advantages

  • Fast growing, evergreen, leguminous tree which can grow under adverse climatic conditions.
  • Tap roots mine water from 10 meters depth without competing other crops. Dense network of lateral roots control soil erosion.
  • Enhances soil fertility (a provider of soil nitrogen, green manure and mulch) and do not deplete soil nutrients like many other tree species.
  • Has a long economic life of 80-100years and produce biomass, biofuel, biofertiliser and biopesticide.

Uses

  • Pod shells can be used as biomass.
  • De-oiled cake is a good organic fertilizer (N 4%: P 1%: K 1%) and animal feed (Protein 30%).
  • Oil for lamps, generators, lubricants, paint and ink manufacture.
  • Karanjin, extracted from oil is used as an insecticide and also in pharmaceuticals.
  • Biodiesel for transport and by-product Glycerine is used in soap and pharma industries.

Is there a downside?

While it was hard to find negatives about the pongamia tree as replacement for soy or palm oil for biofuels and other biobased products, one downside was reported in the Digest in August 2015, when researchers in India found that pongamia trees are susceptible to infestations of the gall midge. The midge lays its eggs in the pongamia flowers and over time destroys the flowers so that the oil seeds cannot be produced.

Let’s also not forget that much patience and long-term investment is needed with pongamia trees since they can take four or more years to mature.

But are these negatives enough to outweigh the many positives? We don’t think so, and we think even the Lorax would agree.

The Bottom Line

The Digest’s take is that the pros definitely outweigh the few cons surrounding pongamia trees, making them a valuable feedstock to keep an eye out for and invest in for our future. Right now, TerViva is the leader in this area and is helping get this feedstock off the ground, but it would be nice to see other players step on the field to support this long-term vision for sustainable biofuels.

Especially when a feedstock helps farmers who have otherwise failing crops or marginal land that doesn’t grow much of anything else, we see pongamia trees as valuable for a variety of players – from the companies planting and harvesting them, the farmers growing them, the producers refining them, and the end users who know their product comes from a non-food, eco-friendly source.

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