Slime for change

The idea of replacing fossil fuel consumption with biofuels has been a much-ballyhooed topic of late, both globally and in Hawaii. Initial enthusiasm has since been tempered with realities of costs, including ongoing debates over converting food crops to fuel and converting farm lands and rainforests to agri-fuel plantations.

Throughout the discussions of plant-based biodiesel and ethanol, there has been a consistent optimism that the best biofuel choice—someday, when science and technology solve existing hurdles—could be miacroalgae. That’s right—pond scum, lurking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, could be the answer to Peak Oil.

It may be useful to consider that all the crude oil currently under the ground, being extracted and consumed worldwide at a rate of 85 million gallons daily, was once microalgae and diatoms that were pressurized—“cooked”—and converted under geologic conditions over eons to produce the gooey soup of hydrocarbons so coveted today.

Presentations on biofuels took place on two islands last week. The Hawaii Agriculture Conference had a daylong symposium relating to the state’s emerging Bioenergy Master Plan. Closer to home, the Ma`alaea Community Association heard from a representative of HR BioPetroleum, which hopes to establish an algae growing operation adjacent to the Maui Electric generating facility in Ma`alaea. 

Last December, HR BioPetroleum announced a joint venture with Royal Dutch Shell to build a demonstration facility on six acres on the Kona Coast, leased from the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. They hope that testing done at this site will allow them to expand to full-scale commercial size facilities within a few years.

Single-celled microalgae are both abundant and prolific and their rapid growth can produce at least fifteen times more oil per acre that other candidates such as jatropha, soy, rapeseed and African oil palm. According to some projections, algae could yield from 5,000-10,000 gallons of oil per acre yearly, compared to 250-350 gallons for jatropha and 600-800 gallons for palm oil.

Thus, it struck me as curious that the Hawaii Ag Conference spent much of their morning session delving into research on several plants—Banagrass, jatropha, Leucaena and Guinea grass—with far smaller yields. Indeed, the Biodiesel Crop Implementation in Hawaii report prepared in 2006 by the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center indicated that utilizing all available ag lands for biofuel purposes would fall short of the statewide demand for transportation fuel and electrical generation needs.

The afternoon session featured short presentations by Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) Senior Vice President Karl Stahlkopf, Paul Zorner of Hawaii BioEnergy LLC and Bryan Collins of Pacific Biodiesel. Stahlkopf noted that “greening of assets” is one of their areas of strategic focus. Short on specifics, Stahlkopf did indicate they are still interested in replacing petroleum diesel with biodiesel and rehashed the procurement policy they crafted with the Natural Resource Defense Council last year.

Those criteria, modeled after guidelines set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, would prime the pump for wide-scale Hawaii importation of crude palm oil from Malaysia or Indonesia, to be refined at the proposed BlueEarth Biofuels facility on Maui. 

Many authorities believe that sustainable procurement of palm oil in Southeast Asia is not possible given the widespread devastation to rainforests, illegal logging and burning and displacement of indigenous peoples and endangered species. (For more info, see “Deadly Price,” Maui Time Weekly, April 3, 2008.)

Stahlkopf brushed off the idea of palm oil industry abuses, saying there probably weren’t any in Malaysia, “because they have a very strict government.” He also avoided using the term “palm oil,” suggesting they could use a derivative, palm stearates.

And he indicated they have a Request For Proposals (RFP) to provide 1 million gallons of biodiesel fuel so they can test their Ma`alaea generators running for an entire month on 100 percent biodiesel. Currently, they utilize Pacific Biodiesel’s fuel for startup and shutdown of their generating units to help keep emissions within required standards.

Perhaps Stahlkopf meant to say a one-week test on pure biodiesel, not one month. MECO statistics from last year indicate their consumption of diesel fuel for the Ma`alaea generators was about 56.5 million gallons, more than a million gallons weekly.

At any rate, HECO’s senior VP and Chief Technology Officer also seemed excited about the prospects of an algae-to-biodiesel facility. “I’m very comfortable with what I see,” Stahlkopf said, while stating that a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed with HR BioPetroleum.

Speaking to an interested group at the Ma`alaea Waterfront Restaurant last Saturday morning, Dr. Barry Raleigh of HR BioPetroleum outlined some of the advantages of algae: high yield; useful by-product for animal feed or fish food; transportation costs are avoided; simplified processing; and no harmful waste products. He described an open pond system, lined with an impermeable membrane and featuring berms, raceways and paddlewheel systems to keep water circulating.

Raleigh said they have selected three distinct, non-modified microalgae strains in their testing. Some algae, he noted, may be 80 percent oils but grow slowly. They have identified strains that have 20-30 percent oils, but multiply rapidly. Growing in salt water pumped from onsite wells, the ponds would be harvested, drained, cleaned and re-inoculated with a new algae culture every three days.

The algae would be de-watered and water would be re-used or pumped into injection wells. Processing of algae oils would not be done by HR BioPetroleum but by another entity, possibly BlueEarth Biofuels, if they succeed in receiving permits for their proposed facility.

Algae is a major consumer of carbon dioxide in its growth cycle, so putting the facility next to the existing power plant is no coincidence. Stack emissions containing CO2, nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide would be captured and bubbled into the algae ponds. SO2 would be removed first, as it is not conducive to algae growth. There may be sufficient CO2 emissions at the Ma`alaea electric plant to support an algae farm even greater than 1,000 acres, Raleigh said.

A number of questions arose from audience members: How many acres will be used? “We’ll start small,” said Lee Jakeway, representing landowner Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar. “Probably fifty acres so we can fit in an adjacent field.”

How much energy is needed to run the operation, versus what is extracted? Raleigh said that if all works out well, they expect to produce oil at a cost of perhaps $50 per barrel. He did not elaborate on electrical and fuel expenditures from running the algae facility. He did acknowledge that pumping water would require considerable electrical costs.

How many jobs might be created? Raleigh said they expect about 30. What about odors and proximity to the Kealia Pond Federal Wildlife Sanctuary? Environmental studies will be prepared by Doug Gomes/Engineering Dynamics, Raleigh said. 

Commercial scale algae projects have not yet produced anywhere near the expected outputs of 5-10,000 gallons per acre yearly. If successful here, a thousand acre facility could yield as much as five to ten million gallons of biodiesel annually. Still that would represent only 8-14 percent of MECO’s liquid fuel demands and wouldn’t address diesel used for transportation or marine usage. Hawaii Superferry, for example, consumes around 6,000 gallons of marine diesel for a one-way trip from Oahu to Maui.

A May 27 Maui News editorial titled “Energy Action Needed Now” bemoaned the high price of gasoline and our rising electric utility rates. “As we rip open our local electric bill and see that over half is an energy surcharge,” the editor wrote, “where is the demand on our state legislature to move away from diesel generation now…not five years from now?” In the few months since the editorial was written, MECO costs to ratepayers have risen to an all-time high of 43 cents per kilowatt-hour.

As exciting as the high-yield appeal of microalgae-based fuel might seem, it is not a panacea for our local energy dependency, or our high costs. It may be, at best, a temporary measure that can help staunch the bleeding of our energy dollars to oil cartels.

Forward looking solutions to help solve our energy self-sufficiency will hopefully include careful consideration of using Central Maui acreage for a concentrated parabolic solar installation, which could produce as much as 200-300 megawatts (more than our current peak demand) on as little as 200 acres. 

Sierra Club and Democratic Party chair Lance Holter informed me that representatives from Abengoa Solar will be on Maui for three days in late October to meet with utility and elected officials and the general public.

By law, since 2006, there must be competitive bidding in Hawaii for new electrical generation. Issuing an RFP for more solar and wind power could help ensure the best possible deal for stressed MECO ratepayers, while our local utility divests itself from its amortized investment in burning liquid fuels to power our island. MTW

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