Mill to help meet state’s ethanol mandate

A proposed facility at the Gay & Robinson sugar mill in Kaumakani could provide more than 70 percent of the state’s ethanol when running at full capacity.

The statewide ethanol mandate, dictating that 85 percent of all gasoline must be at least 10 percent ethanol, went into effect on April 2.

State officials estimate that Hawai’i will have to produce between 40 million and 45 million gallons of ethanol per year to keep up with that mandate.

“It’s conceivable here at Gay & Robinson that you could have 34 million gallons being produced,” said Gay & Robinson President and Manager E. Alan Kennett.

Gay & Robinson has partnered with Pacific West, a limited-liability corporation, in the construction of three proposed plants.

Permits have been filed for the first facility, a 12 million-gallon plant that would convert molasses and sugar to ethanol, and Kennett said construction should begin in August.

Though planners originally intended the plant for the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar mill on Maui, Pacific West President and Chief Executive Officer William Maloney said the plant is definitely going in at Gay & Robinson.

“Due to some uncertainties about the project and some of the issues with HC&S within Maui, we’re going to locate a plant at G&R,” Maloney said. “HC&S took the view that they would like to step back. They put it on hold for the time being.”

Maloney said that even though Pacific West is still going through the permitting process for Maui, they will operate the plant on Kaua’i under Maui Ethanol.

“It’s not necessarily a complete shift-over,” he said. “We are proceeding with our project (on Maui), but that’s not likely to happen in the short term.”

Officials hope to have the first Kaua’i plant online by April of 2007.

Pacific West and Gay & Robinson are drafting the permit proposals for the second Kaua’i facility, a 15-million-gallon, multi-feedstock-capable plant, and expect to break ground sometime in September or October. The second plant, to be operated under Kauai Ethanol, will be able to convert sugar, greens or corn into ethanol.

The third facility is a joint venture with Clear Fuels of Hawaii, Kennett said, to convert a waste byproduct of sugarcane processing, called bagasse, into ethanol.

Kennett said Clear Fuels Hawaii has the rights to the conversion technology, and is currently in the midst of successful test runs in Mississippi. If a 50-ton-a-day plant, currently under construction, works as planned, Kennett said Gay & Robinson will put five of those modules on site, with a nameplate, or maximum, capacity of 7 million gallons of ethanol per year.

More than one type of renewable energy

State Rep. Brian Schatz, a vocal ethanol supporter and former vice chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee chaired by state Rep. Mina Morita, said renewable-energy enthusiasts often miss the big picture.

“When talking about renewable energy, everyone is concentrating on electrical utilities,” he said. “But transportation fuel constitutes a large portion of fossil-fuel imports.”

In 2004, electricity generated from oil made up 26 percent of Hawai’i’s fossil-fuel consumption. Ground transportation accounted for 22 percent.

“Developing an ethanol industry will eventually increase our self-reliance,” said Schatz.

As a whole, the government has encouraged an ethanol industry.

Schatz said the state Legislature is exploring a renewal of the 4-percent-fuel-tax exemption, set to expire at the end of this year, extended to dealers to help offset capital costs associated with ethanol.

“It more than mitigates the cost of storing and distribution facilities,” he said.

The state also offers tax credits to ethanol producers, capping at $4.5 million for companies that produce over 15 million gallons per year, until the combined nameplate capacity from all manufacturers in the state reaches 40 million gallons per year.

Other than the proposed facilities at Gay & Robinson and on Maui, Oahu Ethanol is the only other proposed producer in the state.

To keep up with the ethanol mandate until all manufacturers are operating at capacity, Schatz said Hawai’i will have to import ethanol for about eight months. Maloney said ethanol imports are now coming from the western United States and the Caribbean.

Dwindling public outcry

Schatz admitted that he has heard objections “on the level of grumbling,” but by and large the reception has been positive.

“In transitioning from a fossil-fuel economy to a renewable-energy economy, there will be some bumps in the road,” he said.

Most complaints pertain to water in the fuel system.

“Any combination of alcohol and gasoline is very unforgiving of water,” said Don Anglin, a retired automotive author and editor for McGraw-Hill Publishing.

“When any volume of this blend comes in contact with one-half of 1 percent (of its own volume) of water, a condition called ‘phase separation’ occurs,” Anglin said. “For 10,000 gallons (of blend), that’s 50 gallons of water.”

Phase separation divides the blended fuel into three layers: water on the bottom, a mixture of 70 percent ethanol, 20 percent water and 10 percent gasoline in the middle, and a layer of pure ethanol on top, Anglin said.

If the fuel-pickup tube, located at the bottom of the tank, is low enough, water will be drawn into the fuel system, and an engine will not run on water.

“If the water is below the pickup tube, then it picks up the phase-separated layer of ethanol, water and gasoline, and the engine will run very poorly, if at all, on that mixture,” Anglin said.

Furthermore, Anglin said that mixture is a hazardous material, and needs to be disposed of properly.

“If there are multiple complaints, then my suspicion would be somewhere between the refinery and the tank, the blend encountered water,” Anglin said.

Proponents and nay-sayers alike warn of the danger of leaving gasoline, ethanol blend or not, in the tank of a sitting car for longer than a few months. Groundwater, rain and normal condensation can all lead to water in the fuel tank.

Anglin said he has not heard of any reports of ethanol-induced problems on O’ahu, where he lives, and remains a strong supporter.

“It’s not an ethanol problem, it’s a water problem,” he said.

“Forty percent of the gasoline in the U.S. contains ethanol,” said Maria Tome, an alternate-energy engineer in the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. “It’s used in all vehicles of all makes and models. It’s a normal component of modern fuel.”

Public outcry may grow louder, however, once the cost of ethanol is built into the current gas-pricing structure.

Outspoken opponents say, among other things, that ethanol does nothing but raise prices.

“We haven’t even seen the ethanol adjustment yet,” said Roger Cable of Senter Petroleum in Lihu’e.

State officials could neither confirm nor deny an ethanol-related price hike.

“As to the increases (in price), I am not prepared to comment,” said Lisa Kikuta, a researcher for the state Public Utilities Commission. “Currently, we are evaluating that issue.”

Kikuta said that she does not know when an announcement will be made, but that it is a priority.

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