KIUC awards two renewable-energy contracts

Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative announced a contract with Barlow Projects to develop a 5.3 megawatt waste-to-energy facility earlier this month. It’s the second of four renewable energy projects that KIUC hopes will eventually generate almost half of Kaua‘i’s current peak load.

The first project, a 7.5-megawatt biomass facility with Mahogany Lumber and Green Energy Hawaii to convert green waste from lumber farming into energy, should be up and running in 12 to 15 months. KIUC announced the third and fourth contracts this week, with Cleaves & Company for a 4.5-megawatt biomass facility and UPC Kauai Wind Power for a 10.5- to 15-megawatt wind farm.

Now, the Colorado-based Barlow Projects will look into converting solid waste into energy.

“The county (of Kaua‘i) is in the middle of a solid waste management plan, including what to do with non-recyclable waste,” said Jody Allione, project director for Barlow. “We’re one of the alternatives.”

County officials said they hope for a solid waste recommendation plan by the end of June, to be implemented in October.

Since there is not yet a contract to buy waste from the county, it’s not yet a done deal, but Allione said the contract is an important step.

“If we don’t have a fuel supply, we don’t have a contract,” she said. “But in order to give a good bid to the county, it’s good to have that contract (with KIUC) in hand, so we can bid a tight fee.”

Waste-to-energy plants work like conventional power plants, only burning garbage instead of fossil fuels like coal, oil or gas. KIUC officials said every ton of burned trash reduces oil usage by about 45 gallons. To produce 5.3 megawatts of energy, the Barlow facility would have to burn more than 200 tons of trash a day. Barlow does not plan on importing waste.

Allione said the county will run out of landfill space in four to five years, and Barlow’s patented Aireal Combustion System could help reduce that crunch.

“We deal with islands’ and small towns’ garbage,” she said. “We’re geared toward these applications.”

The combustion requires no presorting other than the standard removal of oversized objects and treated lumber, Allione said. Current plans do not call for a shredder, though Allione said one could come down the road.

“If we put a shredder in, it basically chops up automobiles, appliances, mattresses, bulky furniture, things that typically can’t go into a plant,” she said. She said the facility will also burn the “fluff,” or leftover materials from recycled metals and construction and development waste.

Currently, the county pays $56 per ton to dump garbage at the landfill in Kekaha, and Allione said Barlow’s bid will be close to that amount.

While many residents bemoan Hawai‘i’s high price of electricity, others see a silver lining.

“We’re in an unenviable energy position because our rates are so high, until you start talking about renewables,” said Anne Barnes, KIUC supervisor of marketing and communications.

Barnes said many markets on the mainland can’t explore renewable energy because their break-even point is too high. But with the state’s already exhorbitant electricity rates, she said, Hawai‘i is in a better position to explore alternatives.

“We’re a good test market,” Barnes said.

KIUC’s Shelley Paik said if all four renewable energy projects are successful, they could provide about 34 percent of the island’s energy in 2010, based on forecasted need. Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative selected Cleaves & Company of Portland, Maine, to develop a 4.5-megawatt biomass-to-energy facility that officials hope to have up and running by this time next year.

The agreement is one of four renewable-energy contracts KIUC has signed recently in an effort to reduce the island’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The plan calls for an existing biomass plant from Northern California to relocate to Kaua‘i. The plant, built in the late 1970s, shut down at the end of last year.

Cleaves & Company is in the process of finalizing the purchase of the plant and scouting Kaua‘i locations.

Though the plant is designed to convert walnut shells into energy, Cleaves & Company owner Robert Cleaves hopes to switch to a fuel source indigenous to Kaua‘i as soon as possible.

“Kaua‘i is really blessed with the ability to grow energy crops in a way that’s never been done before by the biomass community,” he said.

Cleaves will import walnut shells from Northern California, but said part of the KIUC negotiations were focused on the plant’s ability to convert other biomass fuels into energy.

“It has to be a plant that can burn different types of agricultural material,” Cleaves said.

He said his company and KIUC explored several alternative fuels, such as bana grass, sugarcane and other fast-growing indigenous plants, but the most likely source seems to be eucalyptus, the same tree that will fuel the 7.5-megawatt biomass facility contracted to Green Energy Hawaii and Hawaiian Mahogany.

Until then, walnut shells will have to do.

Like traditional coal plants, biomass plants generate energy from the heat released from combustion. Unlike coal, however, biomass plants do not actually burn the fuel but heat it slowly in a vacuum, which results in very little residual waste. Once oxygen enters the vacuum, water vapor turns to steam, which turns a turbine generator.

Aside from a clean burn, the idea is to operate a “closed-loop” or “carbon-neutral” system, meaning the amount of carbon dioxide released during combustion equals the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the plant as it grows.

Until the Cleaves & Company plant is weaned from walnut shells, which are grown in California, a closed-loop system is impossible.

“For a while it’s going to be open-loop,” Cleaves said. “But the long-term play for this project is to develop on-island energy crops.” Cleaves said the Hawaiian permitting process is “quite extensive,” but because of California’s tough emissions standards, the plant is more or less up to speed, environmentally.

While Cleaves could not comment on potential sites, he did say it will create several positions he expects to fill with Kauaians.

“There will be approximately 12 jobs at the facility, and probably double that on the fuel-production side,” he said.

Cleaves, who founded his company in 2001 and operates primarily on the East Coast, began looking into Kaua‘i while visiting a friend in Princeville. While small-scale biomass facilities generally struggle in markets with high energy prices, Cleaves said the nature of the KIUC contract makes it an economically feasible option.

“It’s hard enough to get one of these plants up and running,” Cleaves said. “Then to grow your own fuel, we can control our costs to a much greater degree.” In addition to the two biomass plants, KIUC has entered into a 5.3-megawatt waste-to-energy contract with Colorado-based Barlow Projects, and a wind-farm agreement with UPC Kauai Wind Power to develop a 10.5- to 15-megawatt facility.

Officials from the joint venture between Boston-based UPC Wind Partners and Makani Nui Associates declined to comment beyond acknowledging a letter of intent.

KIUC Communications Director Anne Barnes said the range in power capabilities of the wind facility depends on the number of mills and the consistency of the wind.

Wind, the fastest-growing energy source of the last decade, has drawn fierce criticism for disrupting anything from bird habitats to scenic views. While Barnes could not comment on the potential locations, she acknowledged site selection will be a battle.

Unlike the other three renewable- energy contracts, wind power has no fuel costs and low maintenance overhead.

Ford Gunter, staff writer, may be reached at fgunter@kauaipubco.com, or 245-3681 (ext. 251).

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