KOKEE — It is unlike any other logging operation in Hawaii’s history.
And the $90 million biomass-to-energy facility the logs are destined for is as unique as the project itself, state officials say.
“This is the largest operation that we’ve had,” said Lisa Hadway, administrator of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, on a tour of the once-charred grounds Wednesday. “Given that the biomass plant is here on this island, I think this is a great way to help us improve this forest for recreation, for the watershed and for the restoration of this area.”
Now well underway, the Kokee Forest Restoration and Replanting Project calls for the removal of an estimated 15,000 tons of eucalyptus and pine trees from about 300 acres of forest reserve land scorched during fires in the summer of 2012, followed by the replanting of native and non-invasive species.
In January 2013, former Gov. Neil Abercrombie green-lighted the project via an emergency proclamation. Its purposes include “mitigating the post-fire damage” from the three blazes that burned about 4,000 acres in the Kokee area and eliminating the threat to public health and safety from potentially devastating post-fire effects, including flash flooding and erosion.
Ironically, the blackened wood from Kokee will soon meet the flame once again — this time as fuel for powering the island.
The project, tabbed at around $4 million start to finish, is far from a moneymaker, according to Hadway. In fact, the $300,000 to $500,000 the state expects to profit from the sale of its logs to Green Energy will go directly to replanting the forest areas.
“This isn’t about Forestry and Wildlife making money,” Hadway said. “This is about Forestry and Wildlife restoring a piece of forest and preventing something very similar from happening again.”
On Wednesday’s tour, DLNR officials led media members on a day-long tour of both the logging operation and Green Energy Team, LLC’s newly opened biomass facility in Koloa.
Craig Woodward, president of Prineville, Oregon-based Woodward Companies, the company contracted to do the logging, said that before his crew got to work, the brush was so thick in the impacted areas that a person couldn’t even crawl through it.
In just three weeks, Woodward estimated his crew has fallen about 8,000 tons of wood, an average of about 100 tons per acre. He expects to be finished logging by the end of the month, with hauling of the logs to Green Energy beginning in early April and lasting a few months.
While Woodward discussed the logistics and challenges of a logging project of this size, one of his crew worked what is known as a feller buncher — a $500,000 machine able to rapidly cut several trees and fell them at once — in the background. While he worked, a large limb suddenly fell from the tree and landed just feet from machine, which is designed to withstand such an impact and protect its operator.
Woodward said falling limbs like that are what loggers refer to as “widow-makers.”
“Now see, if you had a man on the ground cutting that tree, see, he would have been going to the hospital,” he said.
The largest trees, ones a feller buncher can’t take down, are left to lifelong logger John Ontko. With what seems like little effort, Ontko approaches the base of a monster eucalyptus, makes a series of precise cuts chest high on the trunk with his chainsaw, then casually steps away as the butt of it begins to snap.
“Timber!” Woodward shouted.
The tree falls exactly where it’s supposed to. Limbs splinter as it smashes into the ground.
Like all the others, this tree will make its way to the Green Energy plant, where it will be chipped and used as fuel for the state-of-the-art facility.
Plant Manager Randolph Singer said the facility, which began testing last month and is expected to be connected to the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative grid early next month, is the first of its kind in the United States and one of only several “closed-loop” systems in the world.
“We own the entire process,” he said. “We own from seed to ash. It’s all owned by the company, completely contained on the island. We don’t go off island for any sources. We don’t have to constantly search and negotiate and look for fuel in other places. This is closed-loop. We own the supply. We grow the supply, the trees are grown expressly for this purpose and this purpose only. It’s a crop.”
Gilles Lebbe, Green Energy’s biomass supply manager, said 50 percent of the facility’s fuel will come from the Kalepa area, up by Wailua Falls. The other half will come from the area surrounding the facility. The wood from Kokee represents only a small portion — about 17 percent — of what is needed in a given year.
“We have enough fuel for 20 years, with plantations, with clearing rights,” Lebbe said. “And we have small windows of opportunity in case KIUC takes more power than we committed to deliver.”
While KIUC committed to take 6.7 megawatts, the plant is built to produce up to 7.5, about 12 percent of the island’s electricity — enough to power 8,500 households and replace about 3.7 million gallons of imported oil annually.
Asked why Green Energy decided to build the facility on Kauai, Singer said the climate is perfect for growing trees.
“These trees around us are only about 6 years old,” he said, pointing to towering albizias. “The trees grow extremely fast here … So we can have a short rotation crop.”
Secondly, he said, Kauai’s dependency on imported oil makes the economic incentive right for the project.
Compared to a conventional power plant, the biomass facility releases far less sulfer dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, according to Singer. Additionally, the ash — which will weigh between 1 and 3 percent of the overall tonnage burned — will be recycled as fertilizer for the trees that Green Energy will grow.
By the time the facility goes online in April, DOFAW is expected to be hauling timber from Kokee. Up to 10 logging trucks per day will travel between the reforestation site and the plant.
Hadway and Patrick Porter, the Kauai forestry manager for DOFAW, said if it were not for the biomass plant being built, the impacted areas in Kokee would have remained a major hazard. With nowhere to take the logs, the state would have likely been limited to doing fuel reduction and thinning undergrowth.
“We wouldn’t have tried to convert it back to native,” Porter said of the scorched forest. “We would have just managed it as it was before.”
“You really need a local use of the timber to make it feasible,” Hadway added.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.